New York: Xlibris, 2003


Sam Oglesby, a retired diplomat and international civil servant for the United Nations and the U.S. State Department, most recently contributed to Atencion with his article on Oaxaca in the August 25th edition. He has also written an intriguing account of his life and career, which encompasses more than fifty years of global exploits in such far-flung locations as Japan, Thailand, Burma, Indonesia, Bhutan, Vietnam, Italy and New York City.  Along the way, he also entertains his readers with narratives of individuals encountered in a lifetime of interacting with bureaucrats, diplomats, royalty, peasants, paupers and thieves.

Beginning with a childhood spent with unconventional parents in a remote location by the East China Sea, Oglesby recounts his early education, which eventually led to what he describes as a “slothful” baccalaureate degree from the University of Virginia and a graduate degree in international affairs from Johns Hopkins.  With such a background, it was not surprising that the author would find his calling as a “globetrotter,” as he was labeled by his grandmother.

No self-serving and mindless bureaucrat, Oglesby offers scathing analyses of French and American failures in Vietnam and also examines the historical and cultural factors which destined Burma (now Myanmar) to descend from a favorable launch as an independent nation to its present standing as one of the poorest nations in Asia.

Sparing no criticism of colleagues encountered during his long career, the author takes a precise double-barreled aim at administrators of international aid programs whose propensity to languish in self-made quagmires of ethnocentricity doomed their expensive projects to malfunction and collapse.

Writing with great sensitivity and understanding of the settings in which he worked, the author is at his best in recounting experiences which permit the reader to savor aspects of life in exotic places and challenging times. For instance, in imparting his impression of encountering south Indian coolies at dusk in Burma, Oglesby writes:

At first I thought they were animals.  In the gathering gloom, as early evening crept over the dock side, they appeared to be strange mule-like creatures, straining and groaning as they dragged the creaking, overloaded wagons along the waterfront.  When my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I saw that they were men……It was eight o’clock and night had fallen.  I had gone from the sublime to the horrible in a matter of minutes.  Two hours earlier, I had witnessed what to me was the most beautiful thing in Burma, something I had never found in any other country.  I called it the ‘golden-hour,’ that time between afternoon and night when the sun begins to set and a gilded light settles in the air.  Everything is bathed in gold, faces become soft and lovely, buildings look like palaces, trees turn into sculpture, the river a sea of beaten, precious metal.  For a moment, only a moment, one felt as though heaven had descended on earth.

Commenting on what he calls “the dark side of globalization” in his chapter on Umbria, Oglesby confronts the vice, corruption and crime that have accompanied the 21st century’s neo-liberal push to internationalize economies, while, at the same time, losing sight of the millions of lives negatively affected in the process. Discerning readers will probably link the despair of Indian coolies in Burma to present-day dispossessed populations in Third World nations “globalized” by the moguls of the mega-corporations.

Somewhat perplexing were four chapters of “portraits” of other people’s lives, some of which were difficult to connect with the experiences of the author.  Most readers will likely find Sam Oglesby to be such an interesting person that they will want to know more about the author and his career rather than to be taken on forays with individuals who, though fascinating in their own right, have little or no bearing on the insightful material presented in the chapters on southeast Asia.

In reality, this book could, without difficulty, become two books, one of which would concern itself with more serious matters, such as how the developed world could more effectively render assistance to the Third World, while the second could be a collection of anecdotes pertaining to the colorful characters encountered by the author during his extensive career.  Despite this slight criticism, those who pick up this book almost certainly will find it to be engrossing and informative.  Sam Oglesby is an author who readers will want to hear more from.  Hopefully, during future trips to San Miguel de Allende, he will make himself available to expand on the knowledge gained from his extraordinary experience as an international civil servant.