Brian Smith, Guatemala (2003-06)
My name is Brian Smith, I recently returned from the Peace Corps in Guatemala. I was in Chisec, Alta Verapaz,from 2003 to 2006, more than the standard 2 years, because I asked for an extension. I studied Electrical Engineering at Santa Clara University in California, and am currently attending Western Washington University as a Post-Bac student so I can apply to medical school next year. Chisec, Alta Verapaz is a town about 8 hours north of Guatemala City, in a region where Spanish is not spoken. Half of the people in Guatemala speak an indigenous language, of which there are 21 completely distinct Mayan tongues. Q'eq'chi Maya is spoken in the region of Chisec, and almost a million people speak it in Guatemala. Chisec is a town of 4000 q'eq'chi people, surrounded by 200 villages with average sizes of about 40 families per community. Most of the villages did not have roads to them, and many took all day to travel to on foot from the town of Chisec. My program was called "Ecotourism and Income Generation", but I got involved in many different types of projects that had nothing to do with Ecotourism. Some examples:
- Work in communities where we ended up installing household rainwater capture systems in each home.
- Organization of medical, dental, and surgical missions with groups from the U.S.
- Starting small businesses with groups of women from different villages, using local products (crafts, spices, weavings, etc.) while taking advantage of the Ecotourists as potential customers.
- Establishment of small scale ecotourist sites run by communities who happened to have set up camp next to pristine natural wonders or mayan archaeological sites (caves of candelaria, lagoons of sepalau, etc.) www.puertamundomaya.com
- Development of submergible water pump project and bio-filter water treatment ponds for in-jungle clothes washing station, for 2 separate communities, whose members were previously washing their clothes in the blue lagoons of sepalau.
The people of Chisec were definitely not "latino" like some might expect of most central Americans, but instead were pure Mayan descendants, conserving religious customs and ceremonies, language, and traditional dress in their everyday lives. The region of Chisec was hard-hit by the 36 year civil war that ended in 1996. 200,000 people died, mostly between the years of 1980-82, and everyone in Chisec has a horror story to tell. It is difficult to gain the trust of anyone in Chisec, because most of their lives has been dominated by the fear and paranoia that the guerilla war forced them to experience. Learning the language is key, because if one wants to work in Chisec, and make a difference in the extremely poor region, speaking Q'eq'chi is a must. I recommend Peace Corps to anyone who really would like to make a difference, because the opportunities are definitely there. Self-motivation is an absolute must. It's not an easy job, and many people don't make it all the way through their two years, but the rewards can be incredible for a volunteer and the people who he or she can affect, even when things appear to be going absolutely nowhere. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org