Oct 28

The US Peace Corps in Guatemala

Goldy, Tony, and I in San Cristobal Totonicapan

Visiting an old friend

When Tony and I rolled into Huehuetenango, we found ourselves just 250 km from San Cristobal de Las Casas, that wonderful town in Chiapas, Mexico that we had passed through earlier on the tour.  I couldn’t help but shake my head at the thought that after all that time, over 2000 km of riding, a trip to Cuba, and countless incredible experiences, I had only progressed about a three day ride closer to South America.  With the detour to the Yucatan Peninsula/Belize officially over, now perhaps we could start heading in the right direction for once.

So we pointed our noses south and started a long day of climbing up into the highlands of Guatemala.  The legs were sore from the last 4 days of hills, my entire body felt wrung-out, and I had that deepest of hungers that only a touring cyclist can relate to but it was the last day before a well deserved rest in a town called San Cristobal Totonicapan.

San Cristobal Totonicapan is a town that has remained off the gringo trail despite it’s quintessentially Guatemalan charm, colonial flair and the fact that it is on-route between Xela and Lago de Atitlan – two stops that are on the gringo trail.  In fact, this unassuming town is even overshadowed by the road junction that it sits besides, known famously throughout the country as Cuatro Caminos, Four Ways.  Tony and I though, had a special reason to be heading there, we were going to be visiting a very, very old friend from my school days in Guam whom I had not seen in over a decade: Goldy.

Goldy has been in Guatemala for over two years now working for the US Peace Corps, so when he heard I would be riding through the area, he sent me an email and invited me to come and visit.  That was back in March, when Tony and I were chilling in Guadalajara, so a mere 7 months later we were going to take him up on his offer.

The Peace Corps in a Nutshell

From Wikipedia:

The Peace Corps is an American volunteer program run by the United States government. The stated mission of the Peace Corps includes three goals: providing technical assistance; helping people outside the United States to understand American culture; and helping Americans to understand the cultures of other countries. The work is generally related to social and economic development. Each program participant, a Peace Corps Volunteer, is an American citizen, typically with a college degree, who works abroad for a period of 24 months after three months of training. Volunteers work with governments, schools, non-profit organizations, non-government organizations, and entrepreneurs in education, hunger, business, information technology, agriculture, and the environment. After 24 months of service, volunteers can request an extension of service.

Founded in 1961 by JFK, the last 51 years have seen over 200,000 volunteers serving in 139 countries.  This year, 2012, there are over 8,000 volunteers serving in 76 countries worldwide, though mostly in Africa and Latin America.  The average age of volunteers is 28, and most of them are female (63%), but there is no age limit for joining the Peace Corps and some 7% of volunteers are over the age of 50.

Bad first – and second – impressions.

Fog in the Guatemalan mountains

Now, I’m going to be honest here.  I’ve had a few run-ins with Peace Corps volunteers in the past – first in Turkey, and then later in Mongolia – and neither time did they make a good impression on me.

In Turkey, I met a group of 20-something year old Americans who were only interested in talking about 1)how they were saving the world by imposing American ideals upon hapless developing countries along with launching a series of ineffective programs run by a bunch of spoiled “college” graduates trying to pump up their already healthy egos, and 2) how incredibly drunk they would routinely get during their get-togethers on the weekends.  They would lovingly discuss either of the above two points with equal levels of pride.

In Mongolia, I met another group of 20-something year old Americans who were only interested in talking about 1)how they were saving the world by imposing American ideals upon hapless developing countries along with launching a series of ineffective programs run by a bunch of spoiled “college” graduates trying to pump up their already healthy egos, and 2)how incredibly drunk they would routinely get during their get-togethers on the weekends.  As an added bonus, that night in Ulaan Bataar the entire guesthouse woke up in the middle of the night to the dulcet tones of an angry American man yelling at the top of his lungs at the owner of the guesthouse.  He was obviously upset about something and it was requiring every decibel of his diplomatic skills to make the little Mongolian lady understand that she was in the wrong and not being respectful.

San Cristobal at night.

Those two encounters though weren’t enough for me to completely write off the Peace Corps as an example of useless America-does-no-evil charm diplomacy and foreign-aid-before-investment policy.  Perhaps, I told myself, my first two encounters were not very representative?  Perhaps I was being a tad harsh? Perhaps there was more to this Peace Corps idea than first meets the eye?  So I arrived at Goldy’s place in San Cristobal excited to finally get a solid insider’s perspective on this relatively unique organisation, as well as to catch up with an old friend.

The Peace Corps Experience

As mentioned above, a Peace Corps volunteer donates 27 months of his life to the Peace Corps mission.  The first three months are a training period and then after that the volunteer is sent to his/her “site” where they will live and work for the next two years.  The Peace Corps experience varies considerably from region to region and from volunteer to volunteer.  Apparently, the quintessential peace corps “dream” is to spend two years living in a mud hut in a village in the middle of nowhere in Africa, hours away from the nearest electricity and running water, doing… whatever it is you do… whilst being the only American in the area.  The reality though is that, you could just as easily end up living in an urban apartment in a former city of the Soviet bloc with 4 other volunteers living within a 20 min walk from you.  The only certainty really, is that as a Peace Corps volunteer you will be paid a very modest monthly living allowance that has been designed to cover basic living expenses and little else for the entire duration of your service.  The philosophy, besides being economical, is that in order for the volunteers to understand local culture – and to assist in earning respect from the locals – a volunteer should be living within the same means as the community they are working in.

Descending into Lago de Atitlan

When one applies to be a Peace Corps volunteer, one can request to be sent to a certain region of the world, but there are no guarantees, and when you receive your invitation to serve it could be for any country in the world, and you won’t know exactly where you will be posted until just before you get there.

That was more or less how it was for Goldy when he applied to be a PC volunteer.  He got sent to Guatemala and was stationed in a small aldea on the outskirts of Huehuetenango, the only white guy in the immediate area, and told to start getting some schools built.  After a year and a half, they moved him to San Cristobal Toto, a town with a few other volunteers and a 30 minute bus ride away from Xela, the largest city in the area.  When Goldy’s 2 years finished up, he asked for – and was granted – a six month extension so that he could see to the end a few projects in the pipeline.

Goldy, and fellow volunteer/buddy Jesse were more that happy to talk to me candidly about all aspects of the Peace Corps.  For example, when I related to them my previous run-ins with PC groups, they did not get defensive, rather they sighed and acknowledge that Peace Corps volunteers are known to get out of hand when they get together in groups.  The excessive drinking and the extreme “americanism” of the group essentially being a form of release after weeks or months of living on one’s own without seeing another fellow American.   I’ve written about Traveller’s fatigue on this blog several times and there is a similar fatigue experienced when one immerses one’s self in a different culture like peace corps volunteers are required to do.

Even when I directly suggested to Goldy that aid agencies, and NGOs could be notoriously ineffective and often serve more for making the foreign volunteers fell good about themselves rather than making a long-term sustainable difference in the community, he simply nodded, and revealed to me that after 2 years working with the PC and other NGOs in the country, he was under no illusions in regards to the track record of foreign aid.  In particular, he had seen plenty of projects and programs drop out of existence after volunteers had returned back home.  He explained to me that this was why he had asked for an extension; he had known that leaving at the end of his two years would have meant that several of his projects would have just stopped mid-stride.

After that, I stopped being a dick.  It was time to look at this from their perspective.

Who the heck signs up for this?

Twenty-seven months of your life, living on a limited allowance, being “that white guy” or “that white girl” in a foreign community far from home…  From my perspective it all sounded pretty good except for the 27 month bit.  27 months is a substantial chunk of your life, it’s enough time for two back-to-back Tours de Zack y Tony!  Furthermore, it’s not just like taking any random job for 27 months.  You have no control over where you live, you don’t make any money worth mentioning, depending on where you are posted there might not be much to do during your free time, and leaving mid-service is so highly frowned upon that it is not really seen as an option.. Who signs up for this?  And why?

Lago de Atitlan, a day’s ride from San Cristobal Toto

The answer I received was a little surprising.  Goldy and his compatriots reckoned that only small minority sign up to Peace Corps solely for the purpose of “saving the world”.  Instead, most volunteers join up for personal reasons.  For the older volunteers, many are running away from something, dealing with a mid-life crisis, or are re-setting their lives after messy divorce.  For the younger volunteers, its an excellent way to get yourself out of the USA, a chance to get yourself out of a personal rut, an opportunity to prove yourself to yourself, and good alternative to being unemployed in the US during the economic crisis.  Finally, for volunteers of all ages, its not a bad option when you don’t have any other ideas of what you want to do with your life.

Beyond these personal reasons though, there are obviously still enticing incentives to joining the Peace Corps.  First and foremost, it is an adventure.  You get shipped out to some random country and are tossed in the deep-end – far, far away from the kiddie pool.  Second and third it is the perfect opportunity to learn a foreign language – no matter the difficulty – and use that skill (along with the other skills you learn in the Peace Corps) to leapfrog yourself into a career.  Take for example, Peter Hessler, a peace corps volunteer who taught english in China from 1996-1998 and who was very successful in learning Chinese.  He wrote about the experience in his widely successful book River TownAfter his service he jump into a career as a journalist in Beijing, and has since published two more books and continues to work for the New York Times.  He now lives in Cairo and is busy learning Arabic whilst covering the Middle East.  Finally, for someone envisioning a career in international development, wanting to found a NGO, or wanting a job with the US Government as a Foreign Service Officer (the people who work in the embassies), a tour of duty with the PC provides valuable and relevant experience.

Lago de Atitlan, a day’s ride from San Cristobal Toto

Let us not forget of course that there is one other benefit to signing up: the chance to make a difference.  Obviously, what people do in the PC varies considerably from agricultural programs to education to tourism development to environmental campaigns, and the success of each program also varies considerably from complete failures to incredible accomplishments.  What is important though, is that each volunteer gets that chance and along with it the knowledge that some good – no matter how modest or how great – will come out of their work.

When I asked Goldy what was the most frustrating aspect of his Peace Corps experience, he replied that it was the desire to be productive, to make the most of your two years, but not being able to as a result of outside factors.  PC volunteers work closely with local government and other local organisations and often times the local community does not feel the same urgency, the same immediacy as the American Volunteers who want to move things along as quickly as possible.  Also, sometimes these things just take time.  Whatever the reason, the result is that volunteers often find themselves with a lot of downtime on their hands with no way to change their circumstances apart from getting serious about their thumb-twiddling.  One could joke that the reason volunteers are given such a limited living allowance is so that they don’t develop a drink habit out of sheer boredom.  He recommended that anybody planning on doing a service should come prepared with plenty of personal projects to keep busy with during the slow periods – bearing in mind of course that you might not have much access to internet, communication, or information at your site, so forward planning is essential.

Lago de Atitlan, a day’s ride from San Cristobal Toto

Pretty Fly for a White Guy

Hanging out in San Cristobal for just a handful of days was enough for me to appreciate some of the social complexities of being the only foreigner in a small Guatemalan town.  As the only white guy in town, you tend to stand out a bit, and as a result one must tread carefully to ensure that you stay in the town’s good books.  Guatemalans’ favourite pastime is to gossip, and they treat it as seriously as an olympic sport.  So if you accidentally offend someone in some subtle way that you were completely unaware off, within days the whole town will hear about how rude you were to So-and-So.  Tied in with the gossip sport, it usually does not suffice to just say “hi” when passing an acquaintance on the street, instead one must stop and chit-chat for 5-15 minutes to exchange little tidbits of news.  Failing to stop and chat could once again be interpreted as an offense and days later the Pupusa Lady in town might ask you why you are angry with So-and-So – having heard about the encounter from the Chevere Guy who heard about it from the Panaderia Lady who is So-and-So’s sister.

In a small Guatemalan town, the concept of privacy is an abstract one.  I delighted in the pains that Goldy and Jesse would go through to avoid people at times.  Everyone in town seemed to know where they lived, and so often they would ignore unexpected knocks at their doors.  Everyone in town seemed to know their telephone numbers, so unknown numbers (and known) would often be ignored, not once, not twice, but the customary three times that Guatemalans tend to try and ring someone when nobody answers the first time round.  Finally, they would often take the longer route through the quieter back streets of town to save themselves from the required 15 minute chat with the Pupusa Lady or other conocidos they might bump into.

Lago de Atitlan, a day’s ride from San Cristobal Toto

When I was there, the town was gearing up for the basketball season and scrambling to put together their teams.  Goldy was a top draft pick and I had people asking me for his telephone number, and asking me when he would be home.  When Goldy got back from a meeting he had had to go to in another town, he was approached by one team on the street, he was rung by another team, and a third team knocked on his door – sign-up papers in hand – all in a one-hour period.

In the end, my previous judgement of the Peace Corps was overruled largely by my admiration for the people willing to give up control of their lives and fully dedicate 27 months to trying to improve the lives of others.  I admire now their ability to deal with the extreme circumstances of living and working alone in a foreign community and their willingness to embrace a simple lifestyle and overcome obstacles in an attempt to make a difference.   I even found myself contemplating signing up… if only just to see were they would want to send me.

It had been a good few days with Goldy and his friends, it had been fun catching up and I had learned a lot from them, not just about Peace Corps, but also about Guatemala, Americans, and life.  Now though, it was time for me to leave.  Once Tony was all loaded up and ready to hit the road, Goldy and I exchanged a man-hug and mutually wondered when we would see each other next. Would it be another decade?  And where?



For more information about the Peace Corps and how to apply to be a volunteer check out the Peace Corps Website.  All volunteers must be US Citizens, though US residency  is not required, and there is no age limit as long as you are over 18 and pass the medical exams required of you.  They also have loan deferment services for student loans.







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