Peace Corps: One Year Later

July 17, 2016 marks one year since I closed my service with the Peace Corps in Guatemala. Since I was a child, I dreamed of traveling to a remote pocket of the world with nothing more than I could carry. Living off the land, the people around me, and striving for something larger than myself, I forwent the trappings of modern life and headed south to the Land of the Eternal Spring.

I left the US naïve, full of idealism, and ready to play savior in the developing world. Little did I know, my two years in poverty would teach me more about myself and humble me before the kindness, compassion, and solidarity I felt from and with the people of my community.

Today marks the one-year anniversary of closing one of the most challenging, revealing, enlightening chapters of my life. Since leaving Guatemala, I have become a stronger, better, more self-aware version of myself.

In celebration of the two years I spent in the Heart of the Mayan World, I would like to share with you the most popular blog posts of my service—thanks to you my friends, family, and supportive readers across the globe!

Top visited posts during service:

  1. [food] Sweet Bread of Guatemala
  2. [food] Tamales vs. Chuchitos
  3. [culture] Who Let the Dogs Out? Guatemalan Style
  4. [food] Gringo in Guate: Paternas
  5. [culture] Mayan Superstitions

Celebrating Peace Corps Week:

Snapshots of Guatemala:

Southern Mexico: Tuxtla Gutierrez

The South

Tuxtla

Tuxtla Gutierrez or “Tuxtla” as the bus drivers shout, is the largest city and capital of Mexico’s southernmost state: Chiapas. Unlike it’s charming, colonial neighbor 45 minutes to the southeast, San Cristobal, Tuxtla is a sprawling modern city where Chiapas goes to work. My first impressions were also my last as I did not feel the city had much to offer in terms of culture or sights.

Glossed over in all the guidebooks, Tuxtla Gutierrez is not a tourist destination. Home to a large international airport, most travelers cross paths with the city on the way to other, more scenic destinations in Mexico’s south. And understandably so. While remarkably more clean and developed than most Guatemalan cities, the only spot of particular note to me was the Parque de la marimba where locals gather at night to enjoy street food and outdoor performances. Musicians, artisans, tradespeople, and street performers gather to hawk their trades and the poorly lit streets had me quickly hurrying between the park and the hotel.

A comedian entertains the crowd.

A comedian entertains the crowd.

 

 

The marimba...

The marimba…

As I soon learned would be characteristic of our journey, we made friends with two lovely locals who took the time to show us their favorite spot: the shopping mall. A throwback to my younger days, having never really hung out at the mall, Tuxtla Gutierrez is Chiapan town that one may pass through. It’s not, by any means, a terrible place. Nor is it one that merits a great deal of time spent in a country so otherwise full of excitement and wonder.

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The kids pose for a goofy selfie at the mall.

La Merced (#46)

La Merced is a baroque cathedral located in Antigua, Guatemala. Commissioned in 1749, Juan de Dios Estrada finished construction and opened the church in 1767. Consisting of a sanctuary and cloister, the church was one of the most luxurious of its time and still serves as a functioning catholic place of worship with mass and services offered daily.

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My sister and I posing outside La Merced in March 2014.

Goodbye Guate is a blog series celebrating my last 100 days of Peace Corps service in Guatemala. A beautiful country known as the land of the eternal spring and named as tempting the limits of the possibly picturesque, Guatemala has inspired great changes and tremendous growth within me. I hope to share with you the 100 things I will miss most about this charming and pastoral Central American country.

Two years (#48)

On this day two years ago I woke up to the sound of my iPhone alarm and my roommate showering to Kanye West’s latest album, Yeezus. It was 3am. The airconditioner was still blasting from the night before. Normally I’d frown at such irresponsible energy use but this time I knew that it would be my last encounter with the luxury of climate control for the next two years.

Ugh… #guatemala here we come! #peacecorps

A photo posted by Cyrus Sethna (@csethna) on

As Kanye continued to rap from the bathroom, I sprang to life. Today was was the day I had anxiously awaited for over a decade, bound for Guatemala to begin training with the Peace Corps. My bags were already packed and ready. There was no time to feel sleepy. Already tasked with my first assignment, the Staging Unit expected me to take roll in the lobby of the Capitol Skyline Hotel. Barely able to match name to face, accounting for my new colleagues was quite the task. Little did I know that these 27 people would become a big part of my life- almost like family.

The sum total of all my possessions for the next to years! #peacecorps #guatemala Staging, here I come!

A photo posted by Cyrus Sethna (@csethna) on

Fast forward two years and here I am, on the cusp of finishing two years of service in Guatemala. The real challenges presented by this experience have been emotional rather than professional and I hope my effort can amount to even a tenth of the incredible kindness, perspective, and wealth of experience this nation and its people have wholeheartedly extended to me. Sure we’ve accomplished some great projects: the English academy, Rinkoncito Chapin, and art exchanges to name a few. But the real value of my service comes in the form of personal lessons learned. Here are just five that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately:

1. Success can’t be guaranteed but not even trying ensures failure.

I’ve definitely learned that I’m not good at everything. I don’t even like everything. And that’s okay! But I definitely know that I can, at least try, to do anything. On a related note, I’m cutting the word “try” out of my vocabulary entirely because it leaves too much room to make excuses. “Do, or do not. There is no try,” correctly assesses Master Yoda.

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2. It’s easy to complain about problems but much more meaningful, productive, and fulfilling to talk about solutions.

It’s also harder to do. But remembering last year, nothing good is easily won. Sure there are problems everywhere. Life is hard. Nothing is fair. But what am I going to do about it? Acta non verba.

3. Listen to friends; they really do care about what’s best.

Even though I might not have recognized or appreciated it at the time, my friends have always been at my side throughout this experience to listen and give counsel through especially difficult challenges.

4. Being the best I can be is the only way to bring out the best in others.

No amount of behavior change workshops can amount to what can be done simply by modeling the good. “Be the change.” I finally found the meaning of this overused banality.

gandhi5. Doing things you don’t always love is part of being an adult.

Following the rules, adhering to the complex and strict US-government policies in the Peace Corps, teaching sex-ed to teenagers. Enough said.

Goodbye Guate is a blog series celebrating my last 100 days of Peace Corps service in Guatemala. A beautiful country known as the land of the eternal spring and named as tempting the limits of the possibly picturesque, Guatemala has inspired great changes and tremendous growth within me. I hope to share with you the 100 things I will miss most about this charming and pastoral Central American country.

Hosting Visitors (#65)

One of the things I have enjoyed most about my Peace Corps service has been the opportunity to facilitate cultural exchange through projects such as an art swap and kung- fu classes. Aside from this blog, the best way to share the beauty and potential Guatemala has to offer the world with my fellow Americans has been through hosting visitors.

I take my hat off to the courageous, stellar, and adventurous guests who used their vacation time to come to the most violent region in the world instead of vacationing in the Bahamas or taking a luxury cruise. During the last two years I have had the chance to show 11 different visitors (two of whom returned for a second trip during my service) the pristine natural beauty, authentic culture, and challenges of daily life in Guatemala. Our travels have taken us far and wide throughout this country. Aside from being great adventures and phenomenal opportunities to carry out Peace Corps’ third goal of sharing Guatemala with Americans, I cemented lifelong friendships with people whom I’d travel with to the end of the earth and back again.

Here are some selected snapshots:

Anooj, my first visitor, is now himself a PCV.

Anooj, my first visitor, is now himself a PCV.

Diving at altitude with Mason.

Diving at altitude with Mason.

Dad liked the doors in Antigua a lot.

Dad liked the doors in Antigua a lot.

Wilderness explorers posing in front of a waterfall at a nature reserve in a high-altitude rainforest.

Wilderness explorers posing in front of a waterfall at a nature reserve in a high-altitude rainforest.

My sister and I relaxing on the shores of the Caribbean during her second visit.

My sister and I relaxing on the shores of the Caribbean during her second visit.

 

 

Goodbye Guate is a blog series celebrating my last 100 days of Peace Corps service in Guatemala. A beautiful country known as the land of the eternal spring and named as tempting the limits of the possibly picturesque, Guatemala has inspired great changes and tremendous growth within me. I hope to share with you the 100 things I will miss most about this charming and pastoral Central American country.

Riding in the Back of Pickup Trucks (#66)

The wind rushes through my hair and blows in my ears. As the pickup truck hurtles around sharp mountain curves, I hold on for dear life, flexing my knees and shifting my weight to keep my balance. Trying not to think of the consequences if the driver were to lose control around the next bend, I enjoy the air on my face and the unobstructed view of nature.

There’s something exhilarating about riding in the back of pickup trucks instead of on a bus or in a car. Never knowing whether or not you’ll be smashed up against a small Mayan lady or a basket full of live chickens, no two rides- or fletes as they call them in Guatemala- are alike. It’s an experience that lends your body and mind to nature and the spirit of adventure on the open road.

Posing in the bed of a pickup truck with my sister Lienne and friend Horizon.

Posing in the bed of a pickup truck with my sister Lienne and friend Horizon.

Goodbye Guate is a blog series celebrating my last 100 days of Peace Corps service in Guatemala. A beautiful country known as the land of the eternal spring and named as tempting the limits of the possibly picturesque, Guatemala has inspired great changes and tremendous growth within me. I hope to share with you the 100 things I will miss most about this charming and pastoral Central American country.

La Antigua (#67)

Posing with fellow PCVs, friends, and my sister Lienne in front of the fountain in Antigua's central park

Posing with fellow PCVs, friends, and my sister Lienne in front of the fountain in Antigua’s central park.

La Antigua, Guatemala was the colonial capital of the country during Spanish rule. Established after an earthquake leveled most of the original capital- Ciudad Vieja- where I lived for three months during my pre-service training.

Beautiful cobblestone streets with the famous "Arco de Antigua" in the background.

Beautiful cobblestone streets with the famous “Arco de Antigua” in the background.

Antigua can be characterized by its beautiful cobblestone streets, colonial-era Spanish architecture, and expansive ruins dating back centuries. It doesn’t hurt that the city is surrounded by three beautiful volcanoes. Antigua is home to museums, nature excursions, and cultural day trips along with restaurants of every kind and plenty of nightlife.

The view of the entire city and the Agua volcano from atop the Cerro de la Cruz.

The view of the entire city and the Agua volcano from atop the Cerro de la Cruz.

Goodbye Guate is a blog series celebrating my last 100 days of Peace Corps service in Guatemala. A beautiful country known as the land of the eternal spring and named as tempting the limits of the possibly picturesque, Guatemala has inspired great changes and tremendous growth within me. I hope to share with you the 100 things I will miss most about this charming and pastoral Central American country.

My Training Class (#69)

My training class, known as Bak’tun 2, arrived in Guatemala on June 18, 2013. Greeted at La Aurora International Airport by Peace Corps staff and fellow volunteers, we shuffled sleepily towards baggage claim, customs, and the yellow school bus waiting for us outside the arrivals concourse. I remember arriving, jittery with excitement to be in the self-proclaimed heart of the Mayan world, yet exhausted from our 4AM flight out of Reagan International that very morning.

Bak'tun 2 at our Swearing-in Ceremony

Bak’tun 2 at our Swearing-in Ceremony

In those days, we were 27 strong. 700 days later, our numbers have dwindled, yet we are stronger than ever. Consisting of PCVs from two projects, Youth in Development and Maternal and Child Health, volunteers representing Bak’tun 2, Peace Corps, and the United States of America are spread throughout the five (out of twenty-two) departments deemed safe enough to work in. This month, I had my Close of Service conference with my remaining group members.

Because of their camaraderie and support, I have had strong network of colleagues and friends. They’re there when I need a hand or a leg up and these last two years wouldn’t have been possible without them.

Our second group following the major restructuring of PC/GT. And it is with bittersweet emotion that we must begin our…

Posted by Peace Corps Guatemala on Wednesday, May 20, 2015

My training class at our Close of Service Conference.

My training class at our Close of Service Conference.

Goodbye Guate is a blog series celebrating my last 100 days of Peace Corps service in Guatemala. A beautiful country known as the land of the eternal spring and named as tempting the limits of the possibly picturesque, Guatemala has inspired great changes and tremendous growth within me. I hope to share with you the 100 things I will miss most about this charming and pastoral Central American country.

Time for Personal Reflection (#70)

A large part of Peace Corps service is working to inspire others to reach their potential. In order to do this well, a good PCV has to constantly reevaluate their own position in life, their own goals, dreams, and aspirations.

My time in Peace Corps has contributed to me being more self-aware, showing me my own flaws and weaknesses and allowing me to take steps to address them slowly overtime. When I return to the USA in just over two months, I can’t promise that I’ll be a radically different person from when I left- but I can promise a more empathetic and patient person who’s a much better communicator.

I’ll miss the opportunity to sit down with a cup of coffee, a beautiful view, and think about my life. Not worrying about smartphone notifications and emails. Without Google calendar buzzing reminders about things I have to do and an overflowing to-do list (I use Wunderlist).

Goodbye Guate is a blog series celebrating my last 100 days of Peace Corps service in Guatemala. A beautiful country known as the land of the eternal spring and named as tempting the limits of the possibly picturesque, Guatemala has inspired great changes and tremendous growth within me. I hope to share with you the 100 things I will miss most about this charming and pastoral Central American country.

Celebrating Everything (#72)

Guatemala is a country in perpetual celebration. Like for the Day of the Pencil.

Upon first glance, it’s easy to fixate on economic inequality and great disparities in opportunity that exist between the relatively developed capital in Guatemala City and the rest of the country. Guatemala sports a Gini Coefficient of 54.2, where 0 corresponds with perfect income equality and 1 means a single person maintains all the income. Only 3.8 percent of the country’s total income is earned by the poorest 20% of Guatemalans, compared with the 60.6 percent earned by the richest 20% of the population. The income differences are accentuated by the largely rural agrarian sector and systematic social exclusion and racial discrimination against indigenous Mayan, Garifuna, and Xinca groups. According to the World Bank, 53.7% of Guatemala’s people live in poverty. Furthermore, Guatemala (along with Belize, Honduras, and El Salvador), consists part of Central America’s “northern triangle,” which surpasses sub-Saharan Africa as the most violent region in the world according to the UN.

Despite these seemingly bleak circumstances, Guatemalans are great at appreciating the little things. All the time. Sometimes it even feels like too much- but as they’ve taught me- one never knows if they’ll live to see tomorrow. So in that vein we must celebrate the triumphs of the present and remember the successes of the past.

Valentine's Day isn't just for romance!

Valentine’s Day isn’t just for romance!

Be they mothers day celebrations, a party to inaugurate a new tin roof over a soccer field (thus creating a “stadium”), or simply a moment to enjoy life, there is always plenty of justification to get together with your friends and dear friends.

What a big party for the great new roof!

What a big party for the great new roof!

Goodbye Guate is a blog series celebrating my last 100 days of Peace Corps service in Guatemala. A beautiful country known as the land of the eternal spring and named as tempting the limits of the possibly picturesque, Guatemala has inspired great changes and tremendous growth within me. I hope to share with you the 100 things I will miss most about this charming and pastoral Central American country.