Saturday, July 4, 2020

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Moab, UT

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    Leaving Guatemala

    Pandemic ends local's Peace Corps mission

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    Nathaniel Smith
    Nathaniel Smith
    Staff Writer

    This is the first installment in a four-part series

    Before I received the email from the Global Director of Peace Corps, it had been an average Sunday evening in Guatemala. Settled in after the usual dinner of black beans and a couple of fried eggs, I managed to ignore the subject of the conversation I had hours earlier with the three other volunteers living in the same rural town as I — the coronavirus, and our likelihood of being evacuated.

    Easter week is dominated by grandiose processions that mark the most sacred part of the year for Catholic Guatemalans.
    Photos by Nathaniel Smith

    We agreed it seemed worryingly possible, but ultimately unlikely. Instead, I thought of my plans for the upcoming week, the playoff schedule for the basketball league I played in, and all the work I still needed to do on the grant I had just begun writing.

    When I saw my phone light up with an email from the Peace Corps, I figured it wasn’t good news coming at 9 p.m. on a Sunday evening. Though I couldn’t describe the email’s announcement as unexpected, it still felt utterly shocking. Every Peace Corps volunteer in the world, over 7,000 people, would be evacuated within the next week. “Await further instructions from your country staff,” the email said.

    The congregation and others at a church in Antigua, Guatemala, celebrate Easter amid views of nearby volcanoes and colonial architecture.

    The place I called home for the last year was being ripped away, leaving the second year I expected to stay dangling in the realm of “what if.” I was almost exactly at the midpoint of the two-year commitment I made to serve in the western highlands of Guatemala. My service, my experience with the Peace Corps was coming to a screeching halt.

    I didn’t pick Guatemala. During the application process, I selected “send me where I’m needed most,” my desire to immerse myself in another country’s culture not affixed to any location in particular. At times, I regretted leaving the decision to a bureaucratic system. Nevertheless, I knew I wouldn’t have decided on Guatemala myself, so as I came to love the country (or at least grow accustomed to it) I became grateful that it’s where I landed when I threw my fate to the winds.

    The email triggered a torrent of simultaneous thoughts pulling for attention — work left half-finished, basketball games unplayed, going back to Utah after a year away, and a deluge of others. Yet two commanded my focus: one emotional, one practical. How am I going to say goodbye to everyone and how am I going to pack up all my stuff?

    One may assume when confronted with these dilemmas and a pressing time constraint that I would immediately leap to action. Rather, only my mind moved, bouncing between my two predicaments. So I waited, waited for more instructions and to find out exactly how much time I had left in Guatemala.

    In preparation for a procession, Guatemalans decorate the route with artistic displays called alfombras, carpets in Spanish, whose beauty is only equaled by their impermanence.

    I thought about saying goodbye. Started prioritizing. Pondering the words I would use. Devising a script. I had improved drastically from being a total novice at the language, but my Spanish was still clunky, especially when choked with emotion.

    That train of thought was interrupted when I looked at my two suitcases in the corner of the room. Everything I arrived with in those bulky bags, plus a carry-on, would need to be pushed back in, along with everything I accumulated over the past year. Some things would have to be left behind.

    Another email, this one from the director of Peace Corps Guatemala, arrived within the hour. It detailed the initial plan for getting more than 150 volunteers back to the United States. Volunteers in my area would depart Tuesday.

    I had a day, at least one day to cram in as many farewells as possible and as much stuff into my bags as I could. It meant I didn’t have to wake up the 76-year-old woman I lived with to deliver the dismal news. For the rest of the evening, the evacuation could remain over the hazy horizon of tomorrow.

    My relief was fleeting, as I was soon awash with a feeling of emptiness. I was struck with the invasive thought that I had accomplished nothing in Guatemala. I felt I had spent the past year building relationships, trying to integrate into the community, and planning ways I could leave an impact on a place and people that had become so dear to me.

    And now it all crumbled away. I was left thinking about how it now all seemed so meaningless. But then I thought of all the Guatemalans I had gotten to know and formed meaningful relationships with. It brought to mind John F. Kennedy’s original goal for the Peace Corps, “to promote world peace and friendship.” Admittedly, I found the sentiment quite hokey when we were constantly reminded of his words during the 10 weeks of training that began my time in Guatemala, but now they brought me unexpected solace.

    My work as an agricultural volunteer would be left unfinished. I would leave without having delivered the grant money that could’ve bought chickens for a group of indigenous women. I would not be there to help them build the coops. Yet I hoped the time we spent over the past year sharing our cultures and stories were not a waste. I knew that, at least in my case, it was invaluable.

    I have to admit my reasons for joining the Peace Corps were far from selfless. I wanted a radically new experience, to challenge myself and grow as a person. Undoubtedly, I grew in Guatemala as I became invested in what we were trying to accomplish as volunteers in the agricultural sector. I never held the delusion I would save the world, or even show people how to better farm the land they had cultivated for generations.

    My satisfaction came in the smaller moments — sharing a laugh when vaccinating an uncooperative chicken, or the joy in a child’s eye when we harvested radishes we had planted weeks before.

    A year earlier, I arrived in Guatemala during an especially festive season. It was Easter, here called Semana Santa, or Holy Week. The many processions I watched that week now marched through my mind. There was a celebratory reverence to the ornate displays of religious devotion carried over colorful designs of flower petals, pine needles and sawdust that carpeted the cobblestone streets.

    However, through all the celebration and togetherness was an air of inescapable solemnity as scores of people hoisted a beaten and bloody figure of Jesus Christ to the tune of a mournful brass band. Staring down evacuation, my feeling echoed the mood of the Easter processions: thankful for what had passed, both terrified and excited for what was to come, and achingly sad at the way it had to end.

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