October 12, 2008
Some of Katy and Joe’s friends from training came and visited this weekend and put a different perspective on Peace Corps Guatemala for me.
I have become accustomed to urban sites and placements. Almost everyone in my group lives in the main town of their municipality. This generally entails a market (at least once a week), paved roads, Spanish speakers, relative proximity to a major urban setting (under 3 hours), etc. which is to say, convenience. There is no doubt in my mind that Guatemala is one of the easiest placements to get. I often forget that I am living in a third world country, although a few things bring me back to reality (having to wash my clothes in the pila, bad roads, low levels of education and dental hygiene, to name a few).
Katy and Joe’s friends live in a small isolated aldea (an outlying town from the muni’s center) in the department of Huehuetenango (nicknamed way way far away). It took them 12 hours to travel to our site. Their town is so far out of the way, it has barely been reached by Guatemalan or foreign aid (which makes me realize, I am not as isolated here as I think). Many people have never been to school and most do not speak Spanish. For this reason, people in town are very responsive and appreciative of their efforts. The local health center told them that rates of diarrhea have dropped by as much as 30 percent since they began giving health charlas to the community two months ago. The local population does not become offended and uninterested when they explain they are there to educate and not give out money. They have been placed in a town that desperately needs their help and is eager to receive it.
I believe part of the problem with placements is bureaucratic restrictions. People are so scared of the repercussions of a volunteer getting hurt or threatened that we are being piled on top of each other in more urban settings where the towns are larger, more developed and in less need of aid. All of us have become frustrated here in Cabricán, because when we offer up help, people expect that we will give them things or money. They become indifferent when we explain we have no money to disperse and that we are here to educate. International organizations have thrown so much money at them that this is what they anticipate. In addition, it is harder to integrate and to reach those outlying communities that really do need, and would appreciate, our efforts. I would love to work in some of the outlying caserios of Cabricán, but a 2 hour hike one-way is both impractical and discouraged.
Katy and Joe’s friends don’t fit the typical mold in that they are in one of the outlying communities. They don’t need to worry about the logistics of hiking in and out because they live there. In this small town, it is easier for them to integrate and the people are grateful and enthusiastic of their efforts. It is difficult for them to be so isolated, but they really seem to be enjoying their service despite this fact. I believe Peace Corps efforts in Guatemala would be a lot more effective if they would place people in more of these outlying and isolated communities. Sure, there is greater risk involved, and it would be a harder and more challenging service, perhaps more people wouldn’t be able to cut it, but isn’t that what Peace Corps is all about? Challenging yourself to help those in need?