Monday, July 6, 2020


Moab, UT

94.2 F

    Leaving Guatemala Part 2: There wasn’t enough time to say goodbye

    Peace Corps volunteer's job focused on agriculture

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    Leaving Guatemala Part 2: There wasn’t enough time to say goodbye

    To say I woke up on the Monday morning of the evacuation...

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    Nathaniel Smith
    Nathaniel Smith
    Staff Writer
    The author with a group of Guatemalan extension agents and farmers after a day of working on a hoop house that would be used to grow tomatoes to sell to local schools. Photo by Nathaniel Smith

    To say I woke up on the Monday morning of the evacuation wouldn’t be accurate, since I hadn’t slept. Still, I pulled myself out of bed and prepared for work like the start of any other week. As I dressed, I dreaded packing all my clothes.

    Hurriedly eating breakfast, I thought about the grandmother I lived with and what I had yet to tell her. I decided to say goodbye to the people I worked with first, partially motivated by thinking that showing up at the office at 8 a.m. was the only way to bring a shred of normalcy to the day.

    Nearly all my work was with the extension agents in the local office of the Guatemalan Ministry of Agriculture, which was typically referred to as MAGA. I, a recent college grad with an English degree, was not there to provide the technical expertise. My role largely came down to supporting the office’s head extension agent, an agronomist named Geovani.

    Our job varied widely. One day we might build a greenhouse and the next give a presentation on organic fertilizers and pesticides at an elementary school. The Peace Corps aimed to develop the capacity of extension agents to teach the knowledge they already had as they sought to help rural subsistence farmers in the face of climate change and mass migration. For me, this largely meant trying to plan and co-facilitate trainings about farming, livestock and nutrition.

    Most of our activities were with community groups. The town of about 2,000 where I worked is nestled on the slopes of a narrow river valley in the forested highlands of western Guatemala. Our community groups were in the numerous villages that dotted the pine-covered hills surrounding the town. The intertwined network of dirt roads that wove between the villages was our daily commute. When convenient, I rode on the back of Geovani’s motorcycle, but I usually took the vans and old school buses that constituted the village public transportation system. If I was lucky, I might hitch a ride in the bed of a passing pickup. Sometimes I was in a hurry or didn’t mind spending a few extra quatzales, and I would hop in one of the many motorized rickshaws, or tuk-tuks, that waited for passengers in the town center. When it wasn’t a rainy season, a walk home from one of the closer villages could make for a pleasant afternoon, especially if I spotted a squirrel or Stellar’s jay.

    School garden projects often used recycled materials for creating raised beds and planters, or in this case, a child uses an empty Corona beer bottle to make holes for broccoli seedlings. Photo by Nathaniel Smith

    The MAGA office was only about two blocks from my house. I arrived just as Geovani was leaving his house, which was two doors up the street. He greeted me like it was just any other day. We stepped into the small building that MAGA shared with a government office that promoted adult literacy programs. The one room that constituted the town’s MAGA office had grown more cluttered over the year I had worked there.

    Glaring florescent light bathed the walls, which we had recently painted an off-putting lime green and baby blue. Three desks in the shape of a capital “I,” two filing cabinets, a mini-fridge, and a tower of plastic chairs filled almost all the space. A mound of posters and other presentation materials nearly touched the ceiling from its place atop the filing cabinets. An assortment of hoes, rakes and shovels were wedged in one corner. I didn’t squeeze along the wall around the corner of one desk to reach mine in the center of the “I” as I normally would’ve. Instead, I stood in front of Geovani’s desk and asked when Quique and Yamileth would arrive.

    The other two people that worked in our office rarely showed up right at 8. I never blamed them for their tardiness because both Quique and Yamileth lived in towns over an hour away by bus. Geovani said they were on the way, which could mean 15 minutes to an hour. I couldn’t delay any longer and hit Geovani with the bad news. He thanked me for my help and asked if I knew when I could return. I could only respond with uncertainty. He understood; we had spoken about the growing severity of the global pandemic the Friday prior. I told him I would come back in the afternoon to say goodbye to the whole team of three and headed home.

    Though Quique had only started working in our office a few months earlier, he and I had quickly become friends. After work, before he’d catch the bus home, we’d often go to the granizada stand in the town park. Granizadas, forever in my mind as Guatemalan snow cones, are Styrofoam bowls filled with shaved ice and sugary syrup then topped with a pile of assorted fruits, coconut shavings and peanuts. Every time eating them, Quique and I would joke about moving to the U.S. and opening a stand of our own. I said they would sell well in the Utah desert. He was shocked that I thought four American dollars was a fair price, four times his guess. Now even our more realistic plans, like going to the coast for Easter weekend, were ruined.

    A garden at an elementary school in a Guatemalan village with a crop of soon-to-be harvested radishes. Photo by Nathaniel Smith

    As I began packing, a pile of posters with hand-drawn chickens quickly distracted me. A few months earlier, Geovani had a sudden meeting come up in the regional MAGA headquarters. He sent me to one of the most remote villages to give a training that we had prepared on taking care of chickens. After an hour and a half on a bus and then another 15 minutes in a tuk-tuk, I arrived at the house where the group met. Following some customary small talk, I began my presentation on common poultry diseases and how to prevent them. The old man who led the group interrupted me to say they already knew all there was to know about chickens, and they hoped I would be able to give them hens so they could start selling eggs. I struggled in awkward Spanish to say it didn’t quite work like that and why don’t they make posters showing what they knew about chickens instead. On the bus-ride home, I reflected that at least it wasn’t a total disaster.

    In another village, a pleasant 20-minute walk from home, I was part-way through the process of community meetings, budgeting, and planning a grant-funded project to provide chicken coops, hens, and a series of trainings for a dozen women. The bit of extra income from eggs could’ve made a difference in their lives; now the best I could hope for was the opportunity to say goodbye. I thought of all the times Geovani and I worked around last-minutes surprises, always ready to adapt. Maybe it was fitting it would end in a whirlwind.

    My packing was interrupted by an email from the Peace Corps. Plans had changed. Now I needed to be at the consolidation point, two hours away, this afternoon. Bags half-packed, farewells unsaid, I was thrown into a frenzy.

    Part 3 next week

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