Friday, May 28, 2010

What the Peace Corps experience is like....

I laugh when I think back to the days and weeks preceding my departure from California to come here to Guatemala and work for the Peace Corps. It seemed that everyone I would talk to back then; friends, relatives, or newly met acquaintences, seemed to have an opinion of what the Peace Corps was. My favorite was the person who would say something like, "oh, I have a friend whose in the Peace Corps in Yugoslavia, I'll give her your email and she can tell you all about what the Peace Corps is like. The reality is that the Peace Corps is so different country to country that it practically seems like a different organization. The difference is huge within the country as well. I find that within Guatemala there are an especially wide range of experiences depending on the region in which one is placed. And even then, I often talk with my two site mates who live in the community of San Cristobal about our experiences, and we each have very different stories to tell, though we may have gone through some of the same expereinces together. So really, the wide variation of the Peace Corps experience that one has varies from person to person, depending on ones job, their personality, how they communicate with and responds to others and how they deal with pressure.
My experience here in San Cristobal has been one of full of surprises. While I expected that coming to Guatemala with the Peace Corps would be a grounding experience for me; living in one community for 2 years and having a steady job which would be both challenging and a test of character, what I find is that my life now is almost more spontaneous now than it was when I was a lifestyle traveler. What has come to capitalize my experience here so far is waking up in the morning, having a plan for what I would be doing that day, but preparing myself to be willing for that plan to change completely, for at any moment someone, like the mayor for example, could come into the office and say, "fijese que' (a purely Guatemalan expression that literally means, 'take note' but more precisely means 'I have a problem that soon is going to be your problem') I need such and such a thing done today." and off we go on an adventure that was unplanned and spontaneous. But such is the life in Guatemala, one has to expect the unexpect, e.g. a volcano eruption delays travel plans, a torrential rainfall cancels an anticipated meeting, protests in the highway delay activities a whole day...etc. But the best personal example I have thus far just happened to me this month, on the 18th of May. What happened was that we were given invitations a few weeks prior to attend the monthly municipal counsel meeting to be held in the Municipal Theatre. Upon receiving the invitation, I promptly read it and then tucked it away with the rest of my papers which I was holding onto. Unfortunately I read the invitation incorrectly and what I read to be the 28th of May was actually the 18th. So on the date of Tuesday May 18th I was met with yet another surprise when my counterpart asked me if I was ready to go...I immediately asked him "para donde?" On my way there another co-worker told me that the mayor would like me to give a 10 minute speech about the Peace Corps. Of course, none of this information was shared with me ahead of time, but when we walked into the theater there were more than 50 mayors and authorities from the town counsel of the different Aldeas throughout the municipality. Being invited to sit up front with all of the other speakers and representatives I furiously began writing a speech which I was to deliver in a matter of minutes. Yet, all went with success as, toward the end of the meeting I was introduced to the audience and asked to give a brief discourse about the Peace Corps and the work that I am doing in the Muni. And the 7 minute speech which I gave was well received by all. I can give much thanks to my language training in the Peace Corps training period for the great help that it provided in my ability to speak coherently and confidently in Spanish in front of authorities. But the kind of spontaneity that I wasn't expecting was how intense these first few months of integration would be. As the muni was asking me to prepare a project profile and grant proposal within my second month in site to be delivered to the sponsoring organization, I hardly had time to take care of personal matters. In the consultation with my Associate Peace Corps Director Flavio, he suggested that I come into the office to sit down with him and write my proposal with his help. This was on the 10th, and I ended up staying the night in Antigua in order that I would be able to continue working with him the next day. He suggested that I go to Guatemala city to meet with the engineer for zip lines at the university of Rafael Landivar. So, after finishing the meeting with Don Rosito in Guate, I hopped on a bus to head back to Cuatro Caminos, finally arriving home at 9 pm on Tuesday night. Arriving into the house, I brewed up a pot of coffee and sat down at my desk to type out the profile of the project. Awake until 3:30 am, I finally threw in the towel and fell asleep. Awake only a few hours later, I prepared myself for the meeting that I had with the mayor. In the meeting the mayor looked at the plans that I had spent the past 3 days working on, and he told me his plans for the ecological park that I had written up. What he told me was a change in plans completely and the work that I had done was for naught. But, having more direction at that point, as well as a crew of people from the muni who were there working on the same team within the same project, I felt a sense of gratitude, no longer feeling like the mayor was throwing me out there by myself to swim with the sharks.
I had another meeetings with my APCD Flavio the following week when he came out to my site and we had a meeting together with my counterpart, the representative from IRI (International Republican Institute), and the mayor. What this meeting did was help everyone be a little more clear about what my job was there, including myself. What the meeting did not do was make my job any easier...with the deadline of the project proposal looming I still had to make a big push to get it done. With the countdown of the days putting on the pressure in my reality, I spent several sleepless nights getting done what I thought the mayor wanted. Even then, when I would bring in my profile to work, it would be critiqued and changed, or tweaked, a little bit. Even yesterday when I turned in the finished product to the municipal counsel, I sat down with my counterpart for hours to reread, revise and rewrite the profile. Though now, I am delighted to say that the project profile is in, written, signed sealed and delivered. Gracias a Dios!
But not all experiences are intense like that one. Especially in the sector in which I am working, ecotourism, much of the work is out of the office and exploring the natural environment around the waterfalls. Last Monday was one of those experiences as we (7 of us from the muni) went out to hike the trails with a GPS in order that we could map the area. After the heavy rainfalls especially in the month of May the area is flowering with mushrooms...many of which are edibles. With having a few knowledgeable micologists amongst us, we went on a mushroom gathering expedition at the same time....beautiful mushroom some with colors that I have only seen in pictures.
As we continued down the trail, we passed over the first waterfall, past the second waterfall, and finally arrived at the third waterfall. The reason for the hurry was that, especially in May, the climate is such that rain is expected every day, and particularly in the afternoon. With that in mind, we arrived casually at the third waterfall awaiting our friends to bring our lunch. The third waterfall is particularly impressive as the trail abruptly stops at a 30 ft. cliff from which stretches a water pipe channeling the water from the water spring up top of the waterfall to the barrio of Paxquaq'anil beneath. Having had much experience leading ropes courses in the states I felt inclined to cross the pipe, even though there was no rope and harness to catch you if you were to fall, but there was a guide wire above the pipe which was holding the pipe. Even with that desire, I probably wouldn't have done it had the fontanero (the guy who controls the water flow from the spring to the pueblo every day), Daniel, not crossed it without hesitation. That was all I needed to give me the motivation to cross on my own. When I arrived back on the other side where my companeros were patiently awaiting lunch, the others arrived with the food and we proceeded to eat. No sooner did we all sit down to eat than we felt the rain begin to fall. Knowing how far we were from the Muni, our only shelter, we put on our rain jackets, sweaters, trash bags, whatever we could find to keep us dry. Even so, the rain began to pummel us and I found the only proper response was to run to prevent from being stuck in an inundation of water. While running through the muddy river which was once the trail that we passed through to get there, I thought to myself, "hey wait a minute, this is my job...I need to create proper drainage on this trail to prevent water from collecting like this." So I took out my camera a started shooting video which felt something like a combination between Armageddon and the Blair Witch Project or some movie like that shot in real time where the subject is fleeing from an ambush of some sort. I was the first to arrive back to the pueblo, rain soaked from head to toe, and immediately went back to the casa rosada loca to change into dry clothes. The others arrived an hour behind me, after being stuck out in the rain even more soaked than myself.
So the Peace Corps experience is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you're going to get. As corny as the phrase is, it is true in regards to the Peace Corps experience. But the thing is that everyday is another piece of chocolate; and what to some may be considered an unliked flavor, to others may be the best of all. But regardless, the process of eating the chocolate, no matter what flavor you get is one that is to be enjoyed, not detested, for it is a blessing to be eating chocolate to begin with.

1 comment:

  1. Love the chocolate metaphor... very well-put and good to remember... Kind of useful inspiration for life in general!