July 14, 2004: Headlines: COS - Guatemala: Community: The Billerica Minuteman: Peace Corps Volunteer Steve Dickey says a sense of community prevails in Guatemala

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Guatemala: Peace Corps Guatemala: The Peace Corps in Guatemala: July 14, 2004: Headlines: COS - Guatemala: Community: The Billerica Minuteman: Peace Corps Volunteer Steve Dickey says a sense of community prevails in Guatemala

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Peace Corps Volunteer Steve Dickey says a sense of community prevails in Guatemala

Peace Corps Volunteer  Steve Dickey says a sense of community prevails in Guatemala

Peace Corps Volunteer Steve Dickey says a sense of community prevails in Guatemala

A sense of community prevails in Guatemala

By Steve Dickey / Special To The Billerica Minuteman

Wednesday, July 14, 2004

Burnt brakes, crying children and screeching roosters.

Hold on everybody. You are on a Guatemalan chicken bus as it bounces along, high up on the side of a volcano recklessly careening from one switch back to the next. In their decked-out, gaudily decorated buses, these drivers could embarrass the best European rally car drivers.

On the fifth out of the 30 or so switch backs, the rear tires start to jump and skid out to the side. The bus slowly sways just enough so you are actually suspended over and looking straight down into the 800-foot abyss.

Your body becomes racked with vertigo and for the first time since you were four years old you realize that everything seems much-much safer with your eyes closed and dreaming about your happy place. A half delirious, crazed grin spreads over the driver's face as he d honks the horn and passes the next pickup brimming with people.

But what I want to write about today is a little different, a little closer to home.

As I write this, I am in Guatemala during the holiest time on their calendar, Semana Santa, or "Holy Week, the prelude to the celebration of Easter.

Every night I hear the sounds of religious devotion of this small town rising above the corrugated tin roofs and out over Lake Atitlan to the tops of the giant volcanoes that surround the small town of San Pedro. The voices, drums and opposing cheap sound systems of this town's 20-plus churches manage not to compete with each other as prayers and songs mix into a collage of hopes flying into the night sky.

The people of San Pedro may not be the best singers but their music is filled with a sense of gratitude and hope that is strangely inspiring. They don't have much. Compared to American standards, Guatemalans have next to nothing, making do with an average household salary of $3,900 a year. But the lack of material wealth is not evident in their songs.

The family I am staying with is wonderfully gracious. Two grandparents, a husband and wife and five kids live in two to three rooms - depending on your definition of a room. Their kitchen has two and a half walls with a rusted tin roof to protect them from the elements. Every mourning the grandmother stokes the wood stove to cook breakfast and I am awakened by the rhythmic patting of their 12-year-old helper making tortillas.

Her family cannot afford her basic needs, so she works for clothing and food. Health insurance is a dream for this family that will never be realized. I tried to hide the shock in my face when the 55-year-old grandmother told me that she had never seen a doctor. The Guatemalan government has not been able to pay the father, who is a teacher, for the past three months.

But I am still greeted with a warm smile by each member of the family and handed a small plate full of a runny bean paste with warm corn tortillas to soak it up with. For a family that does not! have all that much, and they are more well of than their neighbors, they sure are grateful. Maybe sometimes it takes not having so much to realize what you have.

At times, life in a small town third world country seems so much more honest to me. I don't want to trivialize their situation. Guatemala, just like most other developing countries in this world, has their share of problems. Fights often break out - usually with fists, but sometimes with knives or guns. It is not uncommon to see drunks passed out in front of bars by noon. By all accounts, the government is horribly corrupt and a small group of families are believed by many to control the vast majority of wealth in the country.

In Guatemala, people don't have the luxury to worry over their trendy diets or discuss which cell phone plan is better than the other. The mental state of their various pets does not matter all that much. People here are content mowing their small meager lawns with machetes. But for some reason, if you wave to a Guatemalan, no matter if they are carrying ten cinder blocks on their back or not, you will always get a smile and nod back. In a country where nothing can be taken for granted, human connections take on high value. Families and friends, the people that can always be counted on, become the most important things in life.

As I write this account, thousands of miles away from my family, I can't say I am thinking about my Explorer Sport or my brand new computer with a DVD burner. It does not matter that I don't have the latest mp3 player. I could care less if my digital camera fell off my night stand and broke into a thousand pieces in front of me.

What matters to me, the night before Easter, is that my friends and family are safe and happy. These are things that really matter in our lives. They matter more than any stock portfolio or high status job that I can think of. Right now as I listen to a congregation half sing, half scream their gratitude for life I find myself content thinking and dreaming of the things that define who I am. Our parents, aunts and uncles, cousins, grandparents, friends and siblings are so important to us. I know I need to work harder and remember that more often.

( Stephen Dickey, a Peace Corps worker, grew up in Billerica and graduated from the University of Massachusetts at Lowell in 2002. He is currently on assignment with the Peace Corps in Africa. )

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Story Source: The Billerica Minuteman

This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; COS - Guatemala; Community



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