One of my most vivid memories consists of standing on the corner of Springfield and Busey on a rainy afternoon in Urbana, IL in the summer of 2003. I was 17 years old and had just left my parents house to move into my first apartment. I had been set loose upon the world, and something about the scent of those warm droplets of rainwater carried a singular and unmistakable message that my future had just burst open without restraint. I didn’t know it at the time, but that kind of moment in time is impossible to recreate in its entirety. I could move into another thousand apartments and stand on a thousand rainy streetcorners on a thousand summer evenings, and wouldn’t ever be able to recapture that. Not even close.
Well, I had another one of those moments three years ago in April 2010, when I arrived in Panama for my service as a Peace Corps Volunteer. Aside from a very short adjourn to visit my brother in Japan, I had never left the country and hardly left Illinois. The deep plunge I took into the world beyond the looking glass created the same kind of singular moment in time where everything was new and unusual in all the best ways. When I got on a plane two weeks ago to come to Guatemala, it could not have been more different. Hopping off the plane in Guatemala City felt about as normal as getting off in Chicago or San Francisco. Coming into Santa Lucia where the Peace Corps office did not offer a plethora of intoxicating stimuli, it felt more like coming home to a familiar place. Being introduced to my temporary host family was not nerve-wrecking or fascinating, it was as plain and easy as could be.
So, the general sentiment has been “OK, I’m here in Guatemala, let’s get down to business.” Part of my assignment is a 2 week orientation session, much less intense than the three grueling months of Pre-Service Training you have to endure before you start a normal term of Peace Corps service. This orientation has taken place in the Peace Corps office, pictures of which you will find below.
The orientation has included many long, boring sessions which are generally unavoidable because they are mandated by DC even though we have already served and already received them. However, the more positive and enjoyable aspects of these two weeks has been getting to know the other 8 PCRVs who are in my cohort. PCRV means Peace Corps Response Volunteer, someone who has already done 2 years of Peace Corps service in another country and has applied for a shorter, more focused professional position at a Peace Corps post, while still having the status of a volunteer. We have variously served in El Salvador, Paraguay, Bolivia, Dominican Republic, Colombia, Panama, and Cape Verde. As a group we have 20 years of Peace Corps experience behind us. It’s been fun detailing and exchanging all kinds of funny, awkward, invigorating, incriminating, and embarrassing stories between us and taking to our new host country with a shared zeal. It bears mentioning that I seriously fucking love these people.
So, I’ve been staying with a host family each night and spending the better part of every day at the office (which my host mother refers to as my “school,” leading me to believe she has absolutely no idea what I’m doing but I’m not really overly motivated to correct her), either in orientation sessions, socializing and taking advantage of the wireless, and just getting to know the staff. PC-GT runs a pretty tight ship, with only 80 volunteers in relatively urban sites (compared to Panama) in a handful of focused regions of the country. The post has much tighter security restrictions on travel and housing than any of us are used to.
The adjustment to life in Guatemala has been pretty easy. That said, I have only been here and it is very obviously unlike Panama in many ways. There are geographical and climatic differences, which are very marked, and there are cultural differences, which are more subtle but pervasive.
With respect to the former, Guatemala is of course much cooler than Panama. Most of the time it is in the 60’s or 70’s, and where I will be living starting Monday it gets quite cold from what I hear, especially in the months of January, etc. This is, in so few words, extremely super-awesome. What is markedly less awesome is the altitude. I mentioned this briefly in an earlier post, about how I have lived my entire life, around 30 years, at practically sea level, and am living somewhere around 8,000 feet. Just walking down the street is a chore. The air is so painfully thin, and only contains 3/4 of the oxygen that air at sea level has. Though, that number is a bit deceiving, because when you are here it easily feels twice as hard to breathe oxygen into your system. Whereas I was putting 100 miles a week on my bicycle before coming here, I’m sure I could barely ride three miles here before I were to be forced to a huffing and puffing halt. At one point I was with a volunteer walking up through the hills of the countryside and while it was thrilling to be able to see clouds floating among cornfields and even get a glimpse of Lake Atitlan in the far distance, I could feel my chest and back muscles clenching in frustration in a futile attempt to funnel oxygen into my bronchi. According to random sites on the internet, acclimatization can take up to 6 weeks.
As far as culture goes, Guatemalan culture seems, in general, to be much more conservative and subdued than Panamanian culture. Panama has a pretty open, raucous, and overtly sexual culture. Guatemala doesn’t seem to be that way at all, especially in the indigenous areas, where of course I will be living. The Peace Corps staff have been telling us about how conservative the culture tends to be, and I have certainly noticed this in my travels just over the past two weeks. Compared with Panama and perhaps some other Latin American countries, there isn’t quite the barrage of stimuli in terms of loud music, extroverted characters, and scantily clad women in every direction (I may or may not be disappointed about this). Everything is slightly more subdued. This is, I will openly admit, a very superficial initial judgement, and I’m sure I might come to other conclusions later, but even in spite of the similarities that can be felt throughout Latin America, this is a very different place. There will most certainly be a learning curve to getting along effectively here.
In the next post I’ll try to clue you in on some of the more interesting field trips and mini adventures during the past two weeks, such as exploring Mayan ruins and archaeological museums, plucking chickens and being present for the arrival of a newborn baby girl, and exploring the cubicle catacombs of large bureaucratic development offices in the capital.