Great memories of Guatemala

It is Christmas, and I am back home in the US after completing my two years service in Peace Corps Guatemala. It always nice to be back home with friends and family especially during the festive holiday season. But during this holiday season, I can not avoid the thought of my friends and adopted whom I left. Leaving Guatemala was harder than I ever thought it would be. Sure, anybody would expect after living within a small community in a foreign place for a couple years that leaving would be emotional from the bonds that we develop. But, this time was much harder than leaving the many places that I lived previously and it even did not hit me until the last few days in Guatemala.

Click here for more photos

I joined the Peace Corps because I believed in its value and that I would enjoy the experience and adventure; mentally approaching it as if it was just a job or a trip. But the truth is that my experience deeply affected me in ways that I am still trying to comprehend and probably will not ever know the subtle yet significant ways that it has transformed me. Thinking about this, I can not believe how I am surprised by the affect on me, after all, this is ultimately the reason that I joined PC – not only that I can help others but knowing that others will help to shape me as a better person. I feel fortunate and blessed in that I was able to have met so many great people that not only were friends but more like family.

From day we landed in Guatemala with barely Spanish skills, I lived with a host family (Domingo y Raquel) for 3 months during training. They included me in all their family functions and we shared our thoughts over dinner. One of my fondest memories is the regular Sunday gatherings with extended family, where I would sit and chat with the grandparents and other moms and dads, while the many kids would tug at my arm to go play with them of simple catch or fly a kite. I will miss those Sunday dinners where four generations come together and share and enjoy while not distracted by phone calls, tv, computer, or todo lists, but simply sitting and enjoying. Then for 2 year I lived in my own simple wooden house on the property of David and Eloisa. Eloisa accepted me as one of her own right away, she never failed to make sure there was a meal ready for me on time. In a way, I felt like family with them, because they reminded me of my parents. The mom loves chatting and will go to any limits to makes sure that I have eaten well. David, very much like my father, a man of few words but equally have the same love. Making sure that a meal is always ready, we regularly had our meals with all the kids and my sitemate Zach with 6 or 7 people crowded around a table for 4. The meals were simple and the surrounding was rustic, but the lively atmosphere would always add to the tastiness of the food. We lived like a close family; I would wake up and the first thing I would do is open the door to let in the fresh morning air and sun rays. Inevitably, a few minutes later Eloisa would notice that I was up and yell out “Ming come eat breakfast” I roll into their kitchen still groggy and not hungry but would sit down to eat as the mom and daughter (Gilma) have been up since 5am preparing the hot tortillas. We chat about this or that as the kids run around preparing for school. David having had eaten would get ready for a day’s work in the field. As soon as he picks up the machete, my dog (Zoey) and our other numerous dogs would start barking and running around getting excited for a day of hunting in the jungle. So everyday I woke up to a lively and warm atmosphere. It was like waking up to a party everyday. We shared the chores around the house, Gilma often did my laundry, Venessa the youngest daughter would sometimes sweep my porch, Neco and Chico (the sons) would help with the crops, Zach and I would cook occasional meals, purchase items from the city and install electrical wiring when it arrived in our village. But what made it like a family was that we would always sit around and chat about our day, I talked to David if I had a bad day or needed some advice, I would be the listener to Eloisa when she had a rough day and often horse around with the kids like siblings would. I don’t think I would have survived my two years in Guatemala with out my host family in Salacuim. They were my anchor providing me a place I can call home, but also my float to keep me up when I was down or having difficulties. We had nothing in terms of comforts just the basics but we were happy sharing. Even the Family extended to the neighbors as many kids would come over and lay or swing in my hammock. Even the grandmother who lived next door I called “grandmother” never knowing her real name. And if they were like family, Zach was like my twin brother, since we lived with the same family (different house but same latrine) and worked in the same project, we basically shared our days together. In actuality we are totally different, but through time we learned to worked together complimenting our differences and became very close.

I would have been grateful just to have had the families mentioned above and the experience would have been rewarding. But I was doubly blessed, I had the family of the organization Proyecto Lachua that I worked for 5 minutes walk down the village road. The closest city(Coban) was 2-3 hours away on a rocky, muddy road winding through the mountainous jungle, as a result over 20 people lived at the project only leaving for their bi-weekly or weekly breaks to go home. As a result, we literally spent everyday together for 2 years (especially I often only leave the project late into the night.) This again developed into my family beyond friends. Since we basically lived at the project, we not only worked together but we would eat our meals together, play, and simply chat every chance we had. We gotten to know eachother well individually. In many ways, we were like a frat. Overtime, I knew who to go to joke around or for advice. Most of this is due to Arturo, the director of the project’s personality. He being very down to earth, hard worker but have no qualm about us taking time off to relax and fool around. Arturo and I bonded as soon as we met, he being a young manager we had many similar style in work but also personal interests. As a result, we became very close friends which I know that we will continue to stay in close contact regardless of the distance that separates us.

Even the people outside of Proyecto Lachua with whom I worked, were close like a family. TESA the group of women weavers that I worked with a great deal treated me as family. Besides the weaving that we worked on, they would often come to office just to socialize with me, or when they had a problem. And there were many days where I went to their house to sit in the hammock and just chat. When one of them had a baby, it was like a niece or nephew of mine was born. As I think about these moments, I realize there are no words that can fully explain the bond that we had. How can anyone every fully explain a deep relationship that he has with someone. But ultimately, these are the thoughts that are personal and will be ingrained in my heart and that is what I will always cherish.

Before I end my note, I want to do a briefly summarize what I/we accomplished during my two years as a Peace Corps volunteer. Proyecto Lachua is one of the largest non-profit organization in Guatemala mostly funded by the government of Holland with the goal of protecting the natural environment while helping the surrounding communities to a sustainable development. My focus was on the management and economics issues. Due to the large scope and mission of our project and the multimillion dollar funding, we were essentially a little UN covering an area of almost 80 sq. miles including a national park with a pristine clear lagoon called Lachua. We had people working on policies, organizations, health, education, economic projects, reforestation, nature conservancy, infrastructure and much much more. Everyday the employees would get one of their 20 motorcycles or trucks and go out to surround areas and villages to work on their specific area of expertise.

In the two years we accomplished(major accomplishments):
• Implemented project in Honey (annual production of 20,000lbs) and built a filtering warehouse
• Reforested over 1000 hectares of tropical hardwood trees
• Implemented numerous facilities to produce seedlings for sale of over 1 million plants
• Implemented projects in pineapple, lemon, oranges and coco
• Sought funding and built schools, library, village governance office
• Brought electricity to many surrounding towns.
• Medical missions including 50 people flown to Venezuela to have cataracts cured
• Nominated for one of the ten best NGOs in Guatemala
• Distributed about $250,000US to community members for reforestation work
• Implemented Tilapia project which will bring close $100,000per year to communities members (more projects are being implemented)
• Trained women on various topics
• School scholarship for top students to study in major cities
• Grown a women’s group from 20 of weavers to include all women working on various projects such as candles and doll making
• Constructed a women’s center combined with a community office building on the second level.
• Successfully prevented an international oil company from entering a critical bio-diverse forest and Mayan historical archeological site from exploiting the area
• Developing a program to enter the international Carbon sequestering program which can potentially infuse the area with multimillion dollars to the communities.

These are the only major accomplishments that I can think off the top of my head as the list can go on for 10 pages. Many of these projects I was involved with in one way or the other. In many instances, I assisted in the economic analysis for feasibility and developing a sustainable model economically and organizationally. It is ironic as during these two years, I was intellectually challenged and learned a great deal from the people with who I worked and the new areas that I got involved. Surprisingly, I think I learned more in the deep jungles of a developing country than I would have ever had in a corporate job. In a way, I feel like I own these people a great deal as I feel like I gained more than I was able to help. But I am happy to say that I had the opportunity to work with the women’s group and also implement a Tilapia project which I initiated through the contact with the Taiwan embassy which will both either help in building the confidence of the ladies or economically help the communities’ members.

So with that I sadly close another chapter of my life, but which I know will always remain deep within my heart. My gratitude goes out to the people of Guatemala that have contributed to my memorable experience. Happy Holidays to all my friends and family and wishing you all the joy in the world for the new year.