Peace Corps- Guatemala 2004-2006

Posting about my Peace Corps Experience in Guatemala from Sep 2004-Nov 2006

How did I ever end up in the Peace Corps?

Some people think I am crazy! How does one who has all the education and a comfortable home and loving family decide to give up the potential of a successful career and volunteer for two years in an unknown developing country. The truth is this decision took some time to think over but once I made it, it seemed so natural and comfortable. I love traveling and have done it ever since I was a teen growing up in the States. To this date, I have traveled to so many countries that I have lost count and know that I am over fifty and maybe over sixty countries mostly with simply a backpack on my back. At every opportunity, strapping a backpack on seemed like a natural calling and with each trip, I grew more excited for the next. However as young kid, I always loved business and the excitement of making money. I went on to pursue my MBA at University of Michigan which turned out to be one of my greatest decisions. After graduation from Michigan, I got a great opportunity to work for International Paper to open their first Divisional Office in Shanghai. It was a great experience for 3+ years and it added to my passion for international cultures particularly at a time when China was just beginning to boom in the world markets. Then I moved back to Taiwan to work in the family business and was glad to be able to return home to learn about my native country. It was not only exciting culturally but also to be together with my family which has been rare since immigrating to the States.

My First Impressions!

First Impressions in the Peace Corps

It is now over six weeks here in the Peace Corps of Guatemala. We are technically still in training and are not yet volunteers as we have only been in training classes. But, I wanted to jot down my initial impressions and thoughts and look back on it when I complete my two years of service here.

First, I came into it with an open mind as I knew that everyone who had gone through the PC experience comes out of it with very different reactions. In my travels I have met many volunteers in small villages and read a novel written by a PC volunteer in China, so I have a pretty good idea when I finally applied earlier this year. During the interview for my application, I was asked what region of the world I would like to be sent. I was stumped by the question, as I was really mentally prepared to accept any place and any condition that I was assigned. After all, this is the PC and I was willing to face any challenges that I was dealt. This is all part of the adventure that I am seeking -- the unknown. Some of the questions in the interview were “do you have any problems with squat toilets?” and “do you have problems being away from your family and friends for a prolonged time?” That struck me as hilarious but also reinforced the mental preparation that I needed. But, I was forced to make a decision as it was part of the necessary information for them to place me. So I asked for Latin America. Other regions I really did not have a preference, just don’t send me anywhere cold! I love Latin American culture, the openness, the culture, the nature, the music, the lifestyle, the food, and on and on. So when I got nominated for Latin America, I was ecstatic as I was told that I would not get it since I did not have any Spanish language skills. And then I got Guatemala, a place that I have visited twice on my own in the past, so I was even happier..

Sights and Sounds of Guatemala

Remember when you traveled abroad and turned on the TV to watch CNN international. They always had these clips “Sight and Sounds of XXX” and they would play a video clip of some amazing scenery in some far away place. I always enjoyed watching those clips.

Now walking around in Guatemala, I regularly come across scenery that is so vivid and colorful that I would think to myself that it would be a perfect clip for CNN to use for Guatemala. Everywhere I turn and look there is always something that catches my eyes to remind me that I am in Guatemala. Even when I lay in bed with the lights off, the sounds fill the room to make me wonder if I am in some strange dream.

But all of it is a little nostalgic for me, brings back wonderful memories of my birthplace, Taiwan back over 30 years ago, when Taiwan was still very much an under-developed country. Even the street vendors selling shaved ice to the little kids are the same exact machines I stood in front of as a little kid waiting for my treat. Another favorite food when I was a kid is BBQ corn, and the street vendors sell that here (but I have to say, the BBQ corn in Taiwan is better, I think the trick is the Soy and Chilli sauce). And the tropical fruits are all the ones that also loved as a kid, mangos, sugar cane, countless types of oranges and mandarins, and some fruits I do not even know what they are called in English.

The scenery reminds me of the environment in which I grew up as a kid in Taiwan. Everywhere I look there are plush mountains with corn or other crops going up the steep hills. There are so many volcanoes here that I am surprised Guatemala is not submerged in a constant flow of red-hot lava. There are populated towns and villages spread across mountains with little side roads that 18 wheelers share with people on foot, bike and cars, chicken buses and whatever, not to mention some of the farm animals, and of course skinny unhealthy stray dogs. This is one of the reasons that I love to travel to these developing countries. Everywhere you look, it is like a theatrical show!! As soon as I walk out the door, my senses are totally overwhelmed. The blue sunny skies, blush green mountain tops, kids running around playing, the people cheering in the football field, the chicken buses blowing their horns, the salsa music from the buses and the nearby homes that are always playing, the numerous churches in one town all chanting, singing or the Pastor is hollering his sermon. And every passing person on the street, not says “Buenas Dias” is a way that sounds like they are singing a tune. One of my favorite pastimes here in Guatemala is just to go for a walk around the village or town. There is always something going on..sometimes I go to the local football field and see how emotional they get over a game. Or I go to the local public water basin and take photos of the ladies doing their laundry as little girls fill the water containers and carry them home on their heads.

Just when you think you are tired and ready for a good sleep that is when the real show begins and continues to remind me that I am in Guatemala. Closing my eyes and ready for a peaceful sleep…then bang!!..fireworks go off in a series sounding like it is right outside my window… Then that gets the neighbors’ dogs barking…then somehow that sets off the pack of stray dogs howling!! Then you hear the packs yelping as they fight in the night!! And then on a rainy night, the tin roof on top of my room begin to sound like the and percussion section of a symphony.. And on a dry quiet night, you can hear little foot step going across the musical it a cat?, no that is too light for a cat..maybe it is a rat, but I only hear a pair of feet, maybe it is a bird….I have yet to figure it out..and this is in the night…come early morning…even before the sun is up..the roosters start going off..And not just one, seems like everyone living around me has at least a couple roosters..Then as if the roosters call everyone out of bed..all the sounds of a new day starts..the Chicken buses honk their air horns to announce their arrival at every stop…then the horses, cows and dogs..all to make their sounds as if to make a symphony to announce the morning…Then of course there are the fireworks that seem to go off at all hours to celebrate some festival or birthday, or the football game win.

Then there is the smell, as you walk down the street, the wind seem to catch all the smells and carry them across your nose..the baking of tortillas at the store, the burning of the trash, wood fire as someone is cooking their meal, the stench of farm animals in people’s front yards, the smell of chicken frying by street vendors..then of course somehow all the chicken bus exhaust are designed to spit out as much black smoke at people walking along the side of the road!!

So the next time you are watching CNN international while traveling..and the Sights and Sounds of XXX starts playing. Replace the images and sounds with what I have said here and you will feel like you went through an intense experience as I do everyday and every moment in Guatemala. I must say I feel so alive because all my senses have been tickled!!

Bring on the Adventure

It is Monday night, a few days before taking the oath to become a volunteer with The Ambassador after a seemingly long 3 months of training. Tonight, I was called by host father, Domingo, that dinner was to be at his father’s house since they were celebrating one of the nephew’s birthday. Even though I was on a crowded chicken bus looking forward to go back to my room, I was happy to know that I was invited to the celebration.

As family gatherings at Grandpa’s has been on my favorite times here during training. These family gatherings sometimes can get over 20 people, so I do not talk to the family much when I am there due to my lack of Spanish. I usually end up playing around with the countless grandkids running around the concrete block house half built with horses and cows outside. But the warmth can be felt without words spoken. They always welcome me with a chorus of salutations. Sometimes I sit in the kitchen as the women prepare the big feast around a wood burning stove. I sit quietly by the side as the relatives share stories as if they have not seen each other for years when it probably has been only hours. The kids always try to pull me away to play with them, whether it be hide and seek or just tossing the ball around. The adults all make an effort to talk to me and include me in the conversation. And when I speak, the room all seem to go quiet as if I had something important to say. But they know better as my Spanish does not allow me to say anything profound.. But nevertheless they make the effort to listen and give me a chance to talk. No matter if the meal is at home or at someone else’s house, my host mom always remembers that I do not drink coffee with my meal as it is the custom here, and always brings a glass of water for me. Little details like things amidst over 20 people running around the dinner table, always reminds me that they treat me like part of the family.

So I walked home tonight and reflected on my stay with Raquel and Domingo in Magdalena for my first 3 months in the Peace Corps. I thought about how in a few days I will be sworn in as a volunteer and somehow overnight develop the wings for me to leave this nest of Raquel and the Training center. And how soon it will be Christmas, the fireworks are already going off in celebration. I will be at a little village that is totally foreign to me. Hemmmm.. How will my Christmas be without my family and friends? Even not with my Guatemalan family which I have grown to appreciate. I think about the time when we arrived September 1st into Guatemala. We arrived at the Training center and after a few welcoming words, we were basically put into a minivan in small groups to be delivered to our host families. I remember riding in the van, basically horrified but did not notice since things were happening so fast. The only familiar faces in the van were other new volunteers I just met in Miami a couple days ago during orientation. The van drove into small neighborhoods and would occasionally stop to drop one of us off. None of it was recognizable. The houses that they had us staying at looked like slums by US standards – un painted walls, unfinished walls, aluminum sheet roofing. The driver and escort dropped us off one by one and drove off. When it came to my turn, I was scared..I can’t even speak Spanish and I am supposed to live with this family for 3 months!!! Don’t I get to meet them first and make a choice? Don’t I get to stay in a hotel for a few days to get my bearings!! What if I don’t like my family? What am I suppose to eat every meal..Where do I sleep!! The escort (later figured out it was our Spanish Teachers) yelled to me get out of the van.. But who the hell is this escort!! How do I know to trust this person that is taking me to some unknown house.. She knocked on a steel door and someone opens a little panel behind the door to see thru.. The steel door opened and I walked into a brick wall and concrete floor building, everything unpainted and dark looking. I hate to say this, but I thought maybe I was going into a prison cell or something. Or worst yet, maybe I was part of a human trafficking scheme that included the Peace Corps as a front. I was trusting my life to complete strangers, led by one stranger to another and then dropped off at some unknown location. These were my feelings just a few hours of arriving in Guatemala and as I was introduced to my host family three months ago.

These memories all of the sudden became fresh in my mind. As I walked home from dinner at Grandpa’s, I thought how I have grown to enjoy dinner with them.. And how strange that I was so scared when I first arrived at the home. If my next two years will be as comparable to the relationship I have built in my short time here in the home of Raquel and Domingo, I will have experienced what I expected of the Peace Corps. Even with all the criticism that I make about training, I have gained a lot during these 3 months. Think back about how intimidated I was, now I am being sent to a site in a few days for 2 years..where it is a little village with no electricity, no running water, no bathrooms, no phones, no tv.. no nada!! Before I had to worry about where I am staying.. now I know I am staying in a run down cabin like house which basically has a stove and bed with a wooden wall separating the too. Before I did not know who the family is. Now I will have to introduce myself to the whole village as I am the only foreigner around. Before I had the support of peers and training center everyday…at my site, I will be 10 hours away from the training center and Peace Corps office, and 3 hours away from the nearest volunteer….shit, we all have grown to get used to our cellphones which we used to call each other to have a beer or chat with my family back in Taiwan or friends in the States. In a few days..I will have none of this.. Let the adventure begin…finally.. with so much anticipation.. I can’t believe the time is finally here for my true Peace Corps experience to begin. But as a friend told me….be careful of what you wish for……stay tuned for the my adventure into the Peace corp… But my thoughts will be with Raquel and Domingo who have welcomed me not only into their homes but also their country when I was a frightened Peace Corps trainee..!!