Over five years ago Jeanne served as a Youth Development Volunteer in Guatemala. Today, she shares her experience with us and the incredible projects she worked on in her community!
When and where did you serve in the Peace Corps? Did you get to pick your country?
I served in Nebaj, Guatemala from 2011-2013.
From 2011-2013, I served in northwestern Guatemala in the picturesque Maya Ixil town of Santa Maria. At that time, you could not pick your country, and were instead “worldwide available”. However, since I was in the application process for over 2 years (applied first with my husband and then on my own), my recruiter and I got to know each other really well! So, when it came time to nominate me on my own as an infamous SWOS (serving without a spouse) candidate, he gave me the choice of a region, and I picked Latin America.
The road to Jeanne’s first home (left), Jeanne and her partner, Kostya, during a town fair and parade (right)
The beautiful town park where Jeanne lived, with very dedicated and vigilant keepers that she and her partner used to refer to as the “directors”
What program were you in? What was your title?
I was a Youth in Development volunteer, and worked with the Guatemalan Ministry of Education in Nebaj on an integrated youth development program that involved training teachers, parents, and students in positive youth development and life skills.
Walking with one of the environmental education groups, los Guerreros Verdes (Green warriors) of Las Violetas, during the annual town parade
The dream team of school directors and superintendents that Jeanne worked with
These little but mighty ones kept Jeanne going on on this slippery waterfall hike!
How long was your flight to Guatemala?
The flight was maybe 5 hours from New York to Guatemala.
Where did you live? What was your house like? Did you live with a host family?
In Guatemala, all volunteers live with host families. Peace Corps Guatemala staff does its best to identify long-term housing for you, but you are allowed to search for (and get approved) housing of your choice after the first 3 months at site. I ended up finding a wonderful home where I lived in an apartment-like space on the bottom floor, with the family on the top floor. I had my own entrance and a kitchen, which worked out really nicely when Kostya (Jeanne’s partner) came to visit. I also thoroughly enjoyed and appreciated having a host family to take me in and become a part of.
Jeanne and her host family
Jeanne and her host mom/bff doing what they loved best – cooking together!
What was the climate like where you live?
I lived in a mountain town in the western highlands, where the climate was temperate with lows around the mid-forties and highs in the 80s, lots of wonderful warm sunlight, as well as very marked and sometimes long (up to six months) rainy seasons. Because of the long rainy season, there are many rivers, lagunas, and waterfalls, as well as crazy caves that cut across villages, and lush vegetation ranging from subtropical lowlands to coniferous forested highlands.
Life in the clouds!
Just an average afternoon during the rainy season, nothing to get in the way of a soccer match!
What was your transportation like in and out of your site?
Since my town was the largest one in the center of that department and a major national road connected much of the east and west ran through the town, transportation was pretty decent. Minivan buses left almost every 20-30 minutes to the department capital, and from there you could take a larger 5-hour bus to Guatemala City or 4-hour bus to the second largest city, Quetzaltenango.
Jeanne and Kostya heading west
What was your daily routine? Weekly routine?
As a Youth in Development volunteer, I worked with the town’s school superintendent and with the directors and teachers of 4 middle schools. I went to each school once a week, and used the other day for meetings and preparation. When I would go a school, I would either co-teach a lesson from our life skills curriculum (self-esteem, communication, career planning, etc.) or lead a meeting of the youth leadership group formed at each school.
We formed two environmental education youth groups and two girls’ leadership groups that met twice a month and planned school-wide presentations and activities. A few of the more successful activities included recycled art contests, community and nature trail mapping exercises, and theatre of the oppressed exercises and presentations. I would also plan and coordinate quarterly teacher and parent trainings. I really liked bringing the four school directors together with the superintendent for meetings at least once a month to coordinate activities across the schools and communities. Together, we organized activities like career fairs, a Youth Development Day with field day activities as well as traditional sports tournaments, HIV/AIDs prevention soccer trainings, a very popular dance competition, and an intercultural youth leadership camp.
Weekends were lovely and lazy. I would shop in the market with my host mom/bff, go on long aimless walks/hikes in the mountains, and hang out with my host family and friends in town.
Las Chicas de la Ceiba, the girls’ leadership group in Pulay after a very successful recycled art workshop (top left), Los guerreros verdes on a hike/trash pickup and visit to a waste management center (top right), Girls groups from Acul and Pulay come together for Campamento Unqa Txumil (Camp of the Stars) (bottom)
What did you eat? What were your favorite foods?
I ate delicious fresh veggies and fruits, hearty servings of beans and tortillas. The Ixil area (of which Nebaj is part) is known for a dish called Boxbol, which are thin steamed tamales wrapped in guisquil (better known as chayote) leaves topped with delicious pumpkin seed sauce and red chile sauce. They had many other scrumptious plates in that region, too, such as a tamal called Lacatama, which was a banana leave tamal of smoked beef, which was super juicy and savory and mmm mmm good! Smoked beef was actually a big thing there, so another common Sunday mean is caldo de rez ahumada (smoked beef), which is a lovely vegetable beef soup with the beef smoked to perfection over 2-3 days!
Boxbol – Jeanne’s favorite meal!
Jeanne’s other favorite food – thick, hearty tortillas and a heart-warming caldo de rez. A version that requires an acquired taste is caldo de pata (beef hoof soup)
What was your connectivity like? How did you call friends and family?
I was city girl relative to other sites, and had pretty regular electricity. I bought an internet stick and was able to skype home and elsewhere!
What language did you speak? What was your language training like?
Since I worked in middle schools where the curriculum was entirely in Spanish, I spoke Spanish primarily, with some Ixil greetings and fun sayings mixed in to amuse the audiences. Nebaj is a predominantly Maya Ixil population (over 90%), with the majority of people speaking Ixil and Spanish at varying levels depending on schooling and whether people lived in or near the town center or villages. When I worked with parents, who spoke primarily or only Ixil, I worked with a teacher in order to translate and contextualize trainings.
I came in speaking Spanish, but was nonetheless given superb lessons during Pre-Service training to improve my Spanish.
How close was the nearest volunteer to you?
There was a pair of volunteers working on a primary school health education program in town with me, an agriculture volunteer in a village about an hour away from town, and an ecotourism volunteer in a village about an hour and a half away. Since the town was also at a transportation crossroads and a major site of military occupation during the internal armed conflict, it was/is the site of significant NGO activity. We had several other NGOs operating in Nebaj, with volunteers/foreign workers from the U.S., Canada, Spain, Italy, and elsewhere.
Jeanne and her site-mates joining forces for a local HIV/AIDS prevention fair
What sort of work did you do in your site? What was the biggest project you worked on?
As mentioned previously, I worked with four middle schools and the district/county superintendent. I really enjoy and thrive in team settings and through collective approaches, so my proudest work was when we were able to combine efforts among the four schools and organize larger exchanges and events. We started an annual tradition of a Youth Development day to get everyone together, showcase a bit of what the program was all about, as well as give students a chance to present and compete on behalf of their schools.
The first year, we hosted a soccer tournament, but that turned very competitive very fast! So the next year, we changed it to a U.S.-style field day of silly competitions like the three-legged race, potato sack races, and water balloon tosses. We then followed up with the ever popular dance and theatre competition, where they had to come up with dances and presentations that presented life skills themes studied. Their presentations always just blew me away, and got the schools so excited!
Fun, not overly competitive alternative to futbol (soccer) matches!
The other really amazing project we were able to do together was a regional intercultural exchange between Nebaj and Pachalum, a Ladino (Mestizo, meaning ethnically mixed and Spanish speaking) community. Proyecto Identidad (the Identity Project), as we called it, aimed to bring different ethnic groups of Guatemala together to learn about their country’s history, and the role of race, ethnicity, and culture in the construction of national identity, as well as personal and community identities. We were able to take students outside of their communities (for some the first time ever) to the beautiful colonial city of Antigua, recruit inspiring leaders in the fields of social reconciliation and mediation to facilitate interactive exercises, and most important of all cultivate a real exchange and new bonds between youth (and adult teachers!) from very different communities and cultures.
Nebaj and Pachalum united for an amazing intercultural exchange!