Living conditions and volunteer lifestyles in Guatemala
- 1 Communications
- 2 Housing and Site Location
- 3 Living Allowance and Money Management
- 4 Food and Diet
- 5 Transportation
- 6 Geography and Climate
- 7 Social Activities
- 8 Professionalism, Dress, and Behavior
- 9 Personal Safety
- 10 Rewards and Frustrations
Few countries in the world offer the level of mail service we consider normal in the United States. Guatemala’s mail service is fair, but often unreliable. Mail normally takes at least one to two weeks to arrive; however, it is common for letters to arrive much later, or never at all. It is recommended that you arrange a system of numbering correspondence with family and friends.
Packages and letters with enclosures may also be sent directly to you in care of the Peace Corps office in Guatemala City. Again, please note that the mail system is not considered reliable.
Once you complete training and are assigned to your site, you can decide how to receive your mail and inform family and friends. Some Volunteers choose to receive mail at a local post office; others prefer to have mail held at the Peace Corps office in Guatemala City.
Receiving “care packages” can be problematic—packages might be held at the central post office for pick-up and customs duties will be your responsibility. Often, the packages are opened or never arrive at all. Experience has shown that small padded envelopes are most likely to arrive intact.
All major cities in Guatemala have public phone and fax service. The national phone company has established offices with phone banks, where you can make and receive calls for a fee. Smaller towns or pueblos will often have one community phone that can be used for a fee. In very rural areas and small villages, phone service is usually not available.
The organization to which you are assigned (your host agency) will most likely have telephone service at its office; however, that office might be some distance away from where you live. In the more developed cities, residential phone service is available, and there are a few Volunteers who have home phones.
Cellphone service is extremely popular among Volunteers;
95 percent of them have cellphones. Volunteers generally purchase these out of their living allowances. We strongly discourage you from bringing a cellphone with you from the United States, as it is highly unlikely that your plan will cover Guatemala and the surrounding region. Once you have been assigned to your site, you can determine if a cellphone is a viable option and purchase one locally.
The Peace Corps office in Guatemala can be reached by direct dialing from the United States. The number is 011.502.2384.3800. Volunteers are not permitted to use telephones at the Peace Corps office in Guatemala to call family and friends unless the call pertains to an emergency and is approved by the country director.
Computer, Internet, and E-mail Access
Computer and Internet access are growing in Guatemala. Much like the telephone, most Volunteers will only be able to use these services when traveling to a central location. If your host agency has a computer, you might be able to arrange for access for work-related or personal use. Internet cafés can be found in most Guatemalan cities that are popular tourist destinations. In many instances, you can compose work offline and then go to a café to send it via the Internet. Since connection fees can be high, Peace Corps/Guatemala includes a small stipend for Internet use in your monthly living allowance to help defray the costs. There are also Internet-connected computers at the Peace Corps office in Guatemala.
Some Volunteers do bring laptop computers with them, which they are able to use for work purposes, but they may not be able to access the Internet. Palm Pilots, because of their small size and lower cost, are good options for day-to-day use. Possessing a laptop or Palm Pilot can be a security concern in Guatemala, since they command high prices on the black market. They can also be damaged or lost.
Housing and Site Location
Volunteer housing and site locations vary depending on your project and the type of work you will do. Peace Corps staff work with your host agency, Volunteers who currently live in the area, and municipal leaders to locate appropriate sites and determine if the living conditions meet selection criteria established by the Peace Corps. In addition, the Peace Corps consults with security staff at the U.S. embassy to review any pertinent safety concerns that might be present.
Peace Corps/Guatemala Volunteers must live with a family during the first three months of their service. This helps Volunteers better integrate into their community and aligns with Guatemalan culture where it is uncommon for single people to live alone. There are often living arrangements in Volunteer sites where there is private space within a family compound-type area. This affords privacy to the Volunteer and the many benefits of meeting your community with the guidance and support of one of its members. By living with a family, you will more fully experience Guatemalan culture.
Many Volunteers become very close to their host families and find that living with them is one of the most rewarding aspects of their service
After the initial three-month period, you will be involved in the selection of your permanent housing. The type of house you live in will depend on what is common in the area. In a city or large town, this will likely be a cement block house with either a tin or tile roof and a solid floor. Most will have electricity. Most households in Guatemala have a pila, a large cement sink for washing dishes and clothes, with a section for collecting water. In more developed areas, you will likely have plumbing, although the water may go off and on. You may have a flush toilet or use a latrine that is separate from the house.
Volunteers in more rural areas may have a house of cement, adobe (homemade brick), with a roof of tin, tile, or thatch. Some have solid floors, but in poorer areas dirt floors are more common. Electricity is present in almost all areas, even small villages, and some will use a generator for a few hours each night. However, power outages are very frequent, especially in rural sites. You may come to rely on candles and lanterns in the evenings. Most will have an outside pila, but you may find yourself carrying water from a community water source or collecting rainwater to fill it. In some areas, people use a community pila or a river for their water source.
Living Allowance and Money Management
Volunteers receive a living allowance adequate to their needs as determined by annual cost-of-living surveys. Volunteers are entirely responsible for managing their personal finances. Living allowances allow Volunteers to live according to the standards of the people with whom they live and work. There are several living allowance categories. They are based on the cost of living in different geographical areas. The principal bank used by Peace Corps/Guatemala is Banco del Quetzal. Upon arrival in Guatemala, each Volunteer must open a personal checking account with this bank and sign a power of attorney authorizing Peace Corps/Guatemala to make deposits for living allowances, reimbursements, etc. to the account. Prior to leaving Guatemala, each Volunteer must personally close the account after ascertaining that all checks have cleared and making the necessary arrangements to cover those that have not. For convenience, Volunteers often open a second account at a bank in or near their site. Funds can then be transferred from the Banco del Quetzal account into the second account.
Food and Diet
Most Volunteers enjoy eating the typical food in their community, often with their neighbors or host families. In towns and cities, you will usually find a greater variety; in poor rural areas, the food choices can be limited. Throughout Guatemala, corn tortillas and black beans are a staple; other common foods include eggs, rice, chicken soup, and bread brought in from bakeries in larger towns. These types of foods are eaten daily in most poor areas of Guatemala. The most common fruits and vegetables include tomatoes, onions, avocado, a squash called huisquil (chayote in the United States), bananas, and mangoes (when in season). Papaya and citrus are found in some areas. Tamales, chicken or pork, are often prepared as well as a sweet rice or corn drink called atoll.
In more developed areas, you might find a greater variety of food, including more meat (most often chicken) and more fruits and vegetables.
Even in the most rural areas, there is likely to be a small local store that stocks snacks, sodas, and staples. Traditional outdoor markets, where you can find fresh fruits, vegetables, meat, clothing, household items, and knickknacks, are held on a regular basis (usually weekly) in central towns and are always open in main cities. In larger cities, you will also find supermarkets, where you can purchase non-perishables and imported goods; in the capital, there is great variety. Some Volunteers take advantage of the opportunity while in town to stock up on special foods and cooking items, such as spices, peanut butter, pasta, or a food that reminds them of home.
Being a vegetarian as a Volunteer is not difficult—in many of the poorer areas, for example, meat is rarely eaten. However, since many Volunteers eat with their neighbors, and meat is prepared on special occasions, there will likely be situations where meat is presented to you. Many Volunteers have successfully served as vegetarians, and you will need to find a way to deal with these situations that is appropriate for you in your circumstances.
Guatemala has extensive and relatively cheap transportation among major urban areas and relatively good access in some rural areas. Volunteers often travel around their site for work activities on foot, in the company of other community members or work colleagues. Some Volunteers use bicycles provided by the Peace Corps to travel. If a Volunteer needs a bicycle to facilitate his or her work and the program manager agrees, the Volunteer will be provided with the means to get a bicycle by PC/Guatemala. However, this can be difficult in mountainous areas, and all Volunteers must wear a helmet when riding a bicycle (provided by the Peace Corps).
For longer distances, Volunteers usually ride “chicken buses,”
U.S. school buses painted and outfitted with racks to haul supplies, and sometimes animals. In rural areas, you might have a chicken bus that leaves your site once a day, travels to a major city, and returns at night. In other areas, pick-up trucks provide transportation to villages on a regular basis instead of a bus. Sometimes, you might arrange for a ride with someone you know who has a car or pick-up. For long distances on major routes, there are “pullmans,” much like a Greyhound bus, which provide a more comfortable ride for a higher fee. On either kind of bus, you will find that they stop frequently to pick up passengers and are often overcrowded, so you might find yourself sitting three to a seat or standing in the aisle.
Geography and Climate
Guatemala is the northernmost and most populous of the Central American republics. More than 12 million people live in an area about the size of Tennessee or Ohio. Guatemala has coastlines on the Pacific and the Caribbean, and it borders Mexico, Belize, Honduras, and El Salvador.
The central highlands are the most densely populated area. Between the highlands and the Pacific lies a narrow plain. The Caribbean lowlands have fertile river valleys. The north of the country contains tropical jungles and protected biospheres.
Temperatures are fairly constant year-round and are most influenced by elevation. In the cattle country of eastern Guatemala and coastal lowlands, temperatures can reach 100°F. In western Guatemala, which is the highest part of Central America, the climate is cold, and morning temperatures in December and January are frequently below freezing. In the areas of more moderate elevation, the climate is generally milder—cool in the mornings, warm to hot in the afternoons, and then cooling down again at night. Average temperatures would be around 50°F to 70°F. The most noticeable feature of Guatemala’s tropical climate is the seasonal alternation between dry and rainy seasons. During May to October, most parts of the country get rain every day, resulting in lush vegetation and cooler temperatures. During the dry season (November to April), rain tapers off and most sections of the country get no rain. This results in dry, dusty weather and hotter temperatures.
There are three prominent aspects of rural social life in Guatemala. The first has to do with the religious celebrations of the community and families. Births, confirmations and coming-of-age ceremonies, communions, marriages, and funerals are themes for the celebration of life. Funerals, in particular, are the recognition of the accomplishments and thoughts of the departed.
The second aspect of social life in rural Guatemala centers on the market, which is far more than a place to buy needed goods. The market is the place to meet and visit with people to exchange news and hold discussions.
The third facet of social life is inter-community competition. Winning a soccer game against a neighboring community, or even losing, creates a sense of solidarity and identity.
For most Volunteers, getting involved with sporting events and activities is the easiest way to integrate fully into the community.
Professionalism, Dress, and Behavior
In Guatemala, a Peace Corps Volunteer is expected to be a professional, demonstrating an ongoing commitment to the quality of work. It takes most Volunteers a while to get a sense of what constitutes a reasonable personal workload. Some Volunteers may have a busy schedule of activities set up with their counterparts or host agency. Other Volunteers may be in a less structured environment, where they must get to know their community, find various avenues for work, and develop their own schedule. Because of logistical considerations, some routine tasks may take longer to complete in Guatemala than in the United States.
Appropriate dress is important, since physical appearance makes a personal statement in Guatemala. What constitutes as appropriate dress for work will vary depending on the type of work you will be doing, Your assignment description will provide specific guidelines.
In general, the norm is a conservative, neat appearance. Except in tourist areas and a few locations near the coast, men do not wear shorts or sandals. Pants or jeans with a clean button-down shirt, polo, or nice T-shirt are common for work and casual wear. Long hair, piercings, or earrings on men are associated with drug dealers and gang members, and thus are not acceptable for Volunteers. Likewise, dreadlocks are not an acceptable hairstyle for Volunteers in Guatemala. You will be expected to adjust your appearance if necessary to accommodate these standards.
Women in Guatemala tend to take pride in their appearance and “dress up.” In indigenous areas, women wear handwoven traditional dress. In other areas of the country, dress varies depending on the site. In conservative areas and small villages, you are likely to see women wearing mid-length dresses, or a skirt with a blouse or T-shirt. In towns and more modern areas, it is common to see women in pants or jeans, and you might see women dressed in a manner that Americans might consider flashy. Female Volunteers are not expected to adopt traditional dress or dress like the women in their community; however, your attire should reflect your status as a professional. Female Volunteers usually wear dresses, skirts, pants, or jeans, with short-sleeved or modest sleeveless blouses in hotter climates. Shorts, bare shoulders and tank tops should be avoided except while on vacation in tourist areas. For assignments that require a lot of hiking or field work, pants are most appropriate. It is important to note that tight or revealing clothing for women could elicit negative attention. Volunteers are expected to dress conservatively.
Peace Corps has a zero-tolerance policy on the use of illegal drugs, including marijuana. It is illegal in Guatemala, and puts both the safety of the Volunteer and the image of the Peace Corps at great risk. Use of illegal drugs will result in immediate separation from Peace Corps. There are absolutely no exceptions.
Volunteers are “on duty” representing Peace Corps 24hours a day, seven days a week—even while relaxing on weekends or on vacation. Your use of alcohol, relationships with Guatemalans and other Volunteers, and your general lifestyle are constantly under observation, both within the local community as well as by other Americans who may be in the country as tourists or on private business. It can at times feel like a restriction on your personal liberties. If you do not feel comfortable with this responsibility, and are not willing to make any necessary adjustments to your lifestyle, then it would be best not to accept this invitation to serve.
More information about the Peace Corps’ approach to safety is outlined in the Health Care and Safety chapter, but it is an important issue and cannot be over-emphasized. As stated in the Volunteer Handbook, becoming a Peace Corps Volunteer entails certain safety risks. Living and traveling in an unfamiliar environment, having a limited understanding of local language and culture, and being perceived as well-off are some of the factors that can put a Volunteer at risk. Many Volunteers experience varying degrees of unwanted attention and harassment. Petty thefts and burglaries are not uncommon, and incidents of physical and sexual assault do occur, although many Volunteers complete their two years of service without personal safety problems. The Peace Corps has established procedures and policies designed to help Volunteers reduce their risks and enhance their safety and security. These procedures and policies, in addition to safety training, will be provided once you arrive in your country of service. Though the Peace Corps will provide you with training and ongoing support, you are expected to take personal responsibility for your safety and well-being.
Rewards and Frustrations
Both the rewards and frustrations of service in Guatemala seem to come mostly from the differences between U.S. and Guatemalan culture. In the United States, the culture emphasizes “action” or “doing,” in which a person’s value to society is assessed primarily in terms of what he or she is able to achieve over the course of someone’s lifetime. In Guatemala, the culture emphasizes “being,” where social value is a function of affiliation and group solidarity. Some Volunteers have a difficult time appreciating the importance of simply spending time with associates and community members to establish confidence based on interpersonal relationships. Most agencies to which Volunteers are assigned have little cultural understanding of the U.S. ethic of volunteerism, and they may have a limited understanding of what kind of support and supervision Volunteers need to feel productive. The rewards, particularly for “self-starters” with high energy, are ample opportunities to make a measurable difference in the lives of the people one serves.