Contemplating My Service

Friday 2/4/2011

I’m not considering leaving the Peace Corps, as the title might imply, just doing some thinking out loud. Explanation below.

Since the end of December, friends and fellow Peace Corps Volunteers in a department (kind of like a state) of Guatemala called “Alta Verapaz” (and Baja Verapaz really, though I don’t really know anyone there) have been evacuated from their homes due to a government raid on drug traffickers. I really don’t have enough information to well-inform you all on the situation, but as I understand it, the government is violating civil-rights in the name of combating drug trafficking, which is not uncommon through the Verapaz and El Petén region. The volunteers of that region were evacuated due the Peace Corps’ inability to protect their safety (which I think was a very good idea) and after about a month of hanging around the office doing nothing, waiting for something to change, they were offered the chance to change site—which means relocate and start their project over from scratch—or head home and terminate their service early. My friend Chad who I talked with the other day said that if he didn’t get the site he wanted he would go home early, 14 months before his Close Of Service (COS) date. That got me wondering what I would do in the same situation.

It would be very difficult for me to change locations right now for many reasons. One is that I just like it here, I’ve made more friends in the past 3 months than I did during my first 7 or 8. I finally have gotten to know my project, what my responsibilities are, what’s expected of me, and how to get help when I need it. The people are also getting used to me, I’m still greeted with “buenos días, Katy” in the street when I’m walking to work, even though I don’t have a clue what the name of the other person is. When I don’t show up to the soccer field on the weekends the boys ask me where I was when they see me Monday.

Another reason is that I’m comfortable here in my house and in my room. I still rent a room from a family and will continue for the next 14 months. There are just no other options. I have a nice comfortable bed, finally made myself a pseudo-closet where I can hang up all my clothes on hangers (yes, this is a big deal), and people respect my privacy. Last year I paid my family Q5 (about $.60) every day to eat lunch with them, and just two weeks ago I stopped that. Lots of times they just made food that didn’t interest me, like boiled chicken with a couple boiled, flavorless vegetables and some MSG powder, or over-cooked, really hard beef that didn’t taste like anything. At least once or twice a week there would just be nothing because the grandmother went away on errands and didn’t remember to tell me where she put the lunch. About once a week lunch would be just beans and tortillas (this is actually one of my favorites, but nowhere near its Q5 price tag).

There were no hard feelings when I stopped, as they said this was actually easier for them too, so for the past couple weeks I’ve been indulging in lunches of salads, omelets, stir-fries, guacamole (yes, this is a meal), and hamburgers. That’s right, I cook meat now. I buy a pound of ground beef ever week for Q20 ($2.50) and it’s good for three meals. I chop up onions, jalapenos, red bell peppers, garlic, cilantro, and I add a bunch of spices like curry powder, garlic powder, seasoned salt, not all at once of course, but different flavors for different days, and mix it all together to make a tasty burger. This is a good meat for me because it’s easy to see when it’s cooked all the way through. My next project is chicken alfredo. I already have cream, parmesan cheese, garlic, butter (margarine really, but butter’s not available), and plan on adding mushrooms, broccoli, chicken, and maybe some type of noodle. I think I’ll write another blog dedicated to my cooking triumphs, but for now, you get the idea that I’m comfortable where I live.

The main reason it would be difficult to leave is I feel I did not really accomplish much during the past 10 months here. I did a lot of sitting in an office waiting for somebody to tell me what to do. When that didn’t happen, I asked anyone and everyone what I could do to help them and 99% of the time got a “well, oh, nothing right now Katy, thank you.” When that didn’t work I came up with my own ideas of things to do but, being new here, I needed other people to hold my hand through most of the stuff and just couldn’t find anybody with any time to spare. When that didn’t work I much more aggressively went seeking out people to give me projects, to give me things to help them with, or to just give me ideas of things to occupy my time. Added to this was a frustration of working with a group called “Movimundo”, an organization funded by Italy but based here in Quiché, Guatemala supposedly aimed at promoting community tourism. These frustrations could fill many pages, and someday soon I’ll write about them, but not today.

If I was forced to evacuate my site I’d leave feeling like I hadn’t really done enough in 10 month’s time. I’d feel like I couldn’t leave Guatemala because, although I have learned a lot and grown as a person, I would feel like I hadn’t completed what I wanted to accomplish. But I don’t know if I would be able to get that in another year in a completely different location. I know I wouldn’t have some of the troubles I faced at the beginning – learning the language, getting used to the environment, dealing with food and stomach issues and things like that, but other troubles are universal. Building trust with the locals, learning everybody’s name, learning the way of their small and enclosed world, learning what they really want out of me rather than what they wrote on a piece of paper to convince somebody to send help. These things take time and they cannot be rushed. It’s like studying for a test, sure you can spend 14 hours they day and night before cramming, but at some point the brain can only take so much. That is how it’s like here; you can’t just spend a whole weekend with somebody and then expect to be best friends. They need to see you every day, they need to see you eat the same things, that you play the same games, that you joke and have fun and are a regular person who’s not just going to pick up and leave in a couple weeks and never look back.

A question I get asked a lot is “Katy, when are you going home? For good?” Well, when I first got here the answer was 2 years which seemed like a long time. Each month or two months I really needed to think more about my answer, subtracting months off at a time “1 year and a half” I finally said in August. I’m down to “about 1 year and 2 months, March 2012” and it’s getting closer every time I think about it. The next question is “and then you’ll go back home to the US all at once?” With that I answer no sé, “I don’t know”, which is true because I’d like to do some traveling and visiting other Central and South American countries while I’m here. The third question that always follows is “and then you’ll never come back?” which I answer with an emphatic “NO! Of course I’ll come back. I’ll write emails, and send pictures, and make phone calls. I’ll come back to visit, but I’ll talk with you in the meantime too.” I’m always so touched to see the looks on their faces when I assure them of this, to know how much I mean to them as a friend, and for them to know that they’re all my friends too.

But if I had to make the choice to start all over in a new village, a new project, with new family and friends or go back to the US, what would I pick? This is the choice some friends are being forced to make right now. I wouldn’t want to change my site because I feel like I could spend another 10 months doing nearly nothing. I wouldn’t want to go home because, really, what am I going to do with the rest of my life? I’m not ready to make that decision yet. Maybe I’ll never be ready to make that decision. I wouldn’t want to change my site because, for the past 6 years I’ve never lived in one place longer than 2 years. My homes have always been temporary and although I know that my home here is temporary, somehow it feels different because it’s so, fixed. I wouldn’t want to go back to the US because, although I know I’ll always have a home with my mom or dad, that’s not where I would want to spend an extended amount of time. Though I have no clue where I actually do want to spend an extended amount of time.

I guess I’m really saying that I’m glad I don’t have to make this decision myself, because I honestly don’t know what I would choose. I think I’d stay here. There’s just more that Guatemala can offer me right now than the Unites States can. There’s more learning and character-building and teaching and experiencing and leading and messing-up that I can do here than in the US, even if I wasn’t here, in Quiché, at home. Even if they sent me somewhere where I knew nobody, had trouble communicating due to the language barrier, had trouble fitting in due to the culture, had trouble getting work done, and just had a tough first few weeks, I’d get through it and it would be worth it. I’ve already done it once. It was worth it.

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