Tuesday, September 21, 2010

A Tale of Two Communities

This weekend I went to visit a friend from my training town to see her site and help her give an environmental education workshop to the teachers of her community. Of all the 16 (?) of us from our training group, Tara's and my communities are physically closest as the crow flies – about 20 km - despite this, to get between the two the standard method is a 100-or-so km, 3-hour tour in bus or pick-up on established roads. If you were accustomed to the terrain, you could probably get between the two in a half day's walk. In terms of characteristics, however, the communities could practically be on different sides of the country.

One of the beautiful views out into the sub-tropical jungle!

My indigenous agrarian community of several thousand is somewhat dry and temperate trending to cold; Tara's ladino agrarian community of a few hundred people is quite humid and temperate trending to hot. Tara's got jungle, tropical diseases, and tarantulas; we've got temperate deciduous and coniferous forest, and I think I once saw a spider that was about the size of a nickel. Her closest market is about an hour away, there is only one bus a day out of town and one back in; in comparison, within my town I can get almost everything I reasonably need, and I can hop a micro every 30 or so minutes, to arrive in under an hour at the nearest big city where I can find some store carrying almost whatever I could want. In a quick daytrip – fairly standard for many volunteers in my region - I can even choose to shop at Hiper-Paiz - the local Wal-Mart branch - or any number of other chain stores in the local mall. (Not that I have the urge much.)

The teachers hard at work listening. Note the hammock (!)

This is all just to say that Guatemala is a country of unbelievable diversity, which makes the Peace Corps experience quite diverse as well. For me, this weekend was an interesting time to be thrust in a completely different environment, resulting in some hard personal reflection in a short amount of time. I had a great time: we drank the cooperative's delicious coffee (and I never enjoy drinking coffee!), feasted on the food Tara valiantly trekked home from town, watched her community win in the local soccer finals, hashed and re-hashed our experiences and reflections, and took in the humid air (which reminded me of summer at home in New York), expansive views of jungle and plantation, and peaceful sense of isolation. I also hung out in a hammock reading while the afternoon rains pounded down, which has made me realize I would like a hammock. Oh yeah, and we worked a little bit, too!

Something I am beginning to come to terms with is my initial disappointment to be assigned to a larger town, with few physical challenges, close to a large city. Through my visit to Tara's site I had time to process and to put to words the idea that it is in a small isolated community that I feel most energized, where I naturally recharge myself, where I feel I can work most effectively. Tara on the other hand really craves the city life sometimes. So I think we came to the conclusion that sometimes by nature people can work best, especially under stress, in one particular environment over another, and perhaps Peace Corps ought to assess this a little more rigorously.

While I see room for improvement in the assignment process, especially as a professional development organization, at the end of the day, you sometimes just have to just live it to know how it will be and how you will react. Perhaps this is the prime lesson Peace Corps can offer us as a personal growth experience, of taking what we have in every moment for what it is and not wishing it were something else. Just easier said than done. Which is why, I suppose, you just gotta do it.

Thanks to Tara for a great weekend!

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