June 3, 1998
So if you are like me, you've just finished jumping around the room, calling all your friends, relatives (some were slightly upset because it was 1 AM) and there's this suspicious lump in your throat and a nervous question in the back of you mind...... What have I gotten myself into'?"
I was suddenly looking at a thick sheaf of bureacratic gibberish intimating that I was being shipped off to Guatemala to work in environmental management which was a smorgasborg of wildlife management, biodiversity, research, trash management, environmental education, and ecotourism. In a word, vague.
Now for someone who likes structure this was a leap. Many of my friends had shared their horror stories of Peace Corps. a few who were volunteers, most who were not. Now you have an additional doubt to deal with, security. It'd be hard to miss the awful news about St. Mary's students and the assasination of the Guatemalan bishop. The ironic thing is that Guatemala is at peace. The point though is that Peace Corps has been riding it out here for the past 36 years of civil war, Peace Corps has toughed out worse. While my daily life in site is anything but normal here, it remains unaffected by the recent troubles.
I live in the village of "The Sauce.," lpala, Chiquimula bordering Honduras and El Salvador. The village of 500 people lies at the base of the Volcan de lpala. This unique volcano, which has a lagoon in the crater and a virgin cloud forest to the north and reforestation area to the south, is also my project. Since I began ten months ago, my counterpart and I have formed two committees: one is a group of environmental education committee of eight elementary school teachers and the another is an ecotourism committee of ten local farmers. Each month the education committee hosts environmental education teacher workshop at one of the eleven local schools near the volcano. The ecotourism committee just recently acquired funding and will start to set up latrines, waste management and guiding signage for tourists.
In February the Volcano was established a protected area under Guatemalan law and my counterpart and I are advising the management team which includes the two local mayors, departmental governors and the regional director for protected areas in Guatemala. The fact that these people listen to my counsel, still surprises me. Every couple of weeks I climb the volcano to fill bags with dirt, plant seeds, construct a tree nursery with the local shade coffee project. I am also kept occupied by the tens of other projects which I agreed to during my first 6 months when was still leaming to say no.
Being the only gringo they've had in my village, doesn't mean they've never met another volunteer. For my first few months my Guatemalan town buddies kept telling me about this volunteer named Leonardo. Apparently this young agforester back in the late 80's was largely responsible for the almost kilometer by kilometer area of reforestation on the top of the volcano. Of course they didn't tell me about that part. The reforestation was the work of the school, or the army, or a government agency, or CARE or the municipality--depending on whom I was talking to, never Leonardo. Instead he was famous for riding a mule to the top of the volcano and swimming the entire lake-- 600 meters in diameter--every day. Later I found out that Leonardo was Jeff, James, Joe and Leonardo: actually four volunteers and only one of them swam. Thus making the accomplishment of the reforestation project more reasonable and the shoes slightly easier to fill.
I spend most of my time with my local friends and "adopted" families. I play soccer with my fellow "Saucenos" every other day and we debate World Cup teams prospects after the game. My adopted families take care of me, patiently correct my Spanish and like to make sure that my diet includes "bastante" (a lot/enough) tortillas and beans.
The nearest volunteer is about 45 minutes by bus and I see them or other friends once every two weeks. My fellow volunteers remain my chief support group. This is a dedicated bunch of interesting talented people. Together, we like to travel, gossip, listen and laugh. A sense of humor is real important and "campo" (field) life will give you plenty to laugh about.
One suggestion before you hop on that plane. Ask yourself one question: why do you want to do this? Here's a secret, Peace Corps volunteers are NOT blindly altruistic. Neither are we steely eyed ambitious Wall Street lawyers. But my recommendation is simple: join Peace Corps for yourself, to learn or improve your Spanish, to learn an indigenous language, to make new friends, to have an adventure, to learn guitar, to write, to see the world and to help the poor of Guatemala. But not only to help the people here. These are good kind wonderful people, who have a lot of problems. But should I leave here and have changed one environmentally damaging practice, I will have succeeded. It will be enough for me, but it might not be enough to sustain someone whose only purpose in Peace Corps is to make a difference in their community.
You will make a difference, it's just the difference might be in you.
Get ready for a great adventure. Nos vemos prontivvmo. (See you real soon)
Volunteer, Aldea El Sauce, lpala Chiquimula