Distant Adventures Hit Home By Matthew Stachmus - My first day in Guatemala as a Peace Corps trainee was sensory overload.

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Distant Adventures Hit Home By Matthew Stachmus - My first day in Guatemala as a Peace Corps trainee was sensory overload.

Distant Adventures Hit Home By Matthew Stachmus - My first day in Guatemala as a Peace Corps trainee was sensory overload.

Distant Adventures Hit Home By Matthew Stachmus - My first day in Guatemala as a Peace Corps trainee was sensory overload.

Distant Adventures Hit Home

By Matthew Stachmus

During my junior year of college it became manifest that I was receiving a "calling" to leave the U.S. and serve the poor abroad. On June 6th, 1995, one month after graduation, I was where I hoped to be: the Third World. My first day in Guatemala as a Peace Corps trainee was sensory overload. Everything--the culture, the language, the people, and the surroundings--were different. Frankly, I had no misconceptions because I had no inkling as to what to expect.

The Peace Corps director was quick to blast away any quixotic or romantic sentiments we may have had. I stand somewhere between respecting and loathing what he told us our first day in country, "You will find that the majority of Guatemalans will treat you well even though they probably shouldn't." It was a quick wake-up call that we were not brought there for an easy job.

Despite this, I found the majority of the other trainees very amiable and in high spirits. We did a lot of joking around. I remember vividly some of our commentary that afternoon. One particular trainee, whom happened to be in his late sixties, would wake up early every morning and brush his teeth outside our dormitory wearing only his boxer shorts. He asked us if we brought "protection." To this a young trainee replied, "We will be receiving that in our medical kits." The old man rebuked, "That's over a week away."

We were sharing the retreat center outside the capital with salespeople from one of the largest bakeries in Central America. I asked one of these gentlemen what he did and he replied, "I work for Bimbo." I could not conceal my amusement. I later found out that the name of the bakery is indeed Bimbo.

The following day we each arrived at the homes of our assigned host families. Severely lacking in language skills, I relied on the propitious nature of the universal language, a smile. After giving my host parents some chocolates I had bought stateside as a gift, I unpacked my belongings and set about getting my room in order. One of the things I meticulously packed was an old deflated soccer ball. Upon seeing this, my host-father asked me to juggle out in the front yard. It felt so great to be able to do something cross-cultural so soon after arriving.

While completing my language and technical training, I made many great friends in my town. I was even asked to play on the town's soccer team. I hated to leave my host family at the time of graduation, but like the trainees that remained, I too was ready to begin my service as a volunteer.

After receiving our site assignments, we broke up into travel groups. The Peace Corps gave us no logistical support in moving our belongings and ourselves to our new homes in every corner of the country. My friend Emilio agreed to drive five of us and our belongings, including a rabbit and a Rottweiler puppy, to the capital in his little pickup. Three of us sat spread-eagle atop the huge mound of suitcases and backpacks to prevent them from being blown away. From there we boarded an old bus to the southwest coast.

Two hours into the ride, I had become complacent and was thinking how easy this move was going to be. As if on cue, the bus pulled off the road and stopped. "What the heck is going on?" I asked. Two of my companions walked up the road about 100 meters to see what was the cause of the apparent bottleneck. "Something" had formed a huge crater in the bridge so wide that there was not enough space for the buses to maneuver around it. This, however, did not prevent people from crossing on foot, or smaller vehicles with a narrower wheelbase from skirting the chasm. "Now what?" we thought. There we were in the baking heat, stranded with over 600 pounds of our possessions on the coastal highway. We decided to hire three men to help us move our gear to the other side of the bridge and reload it on a waiting bus. Somehow, every last article made it through and my new site-mate and myself arrived at a town about an hour away from our site around 6 p.m. There we took lodging in an abandoned house.

My next three years were full of similar adventures and misadventures. I recall at least two other precarious bridge crossings. In one, the old school bus I was in drove over a "bridge" that was no more than four downed telephone poles, one pair for the tires on the right side of the bus and one pair for the left. I recall the driver saying a prayer before and after we crossed. In another episode, four other volunteers and I came to a very questionable-looking hanging bridge over a small river. One of the volunteers assured us it was safe. Taking as little risk as possible, we took turns to prevent two people being on the bridge at the same time. My friend Red was the last to cross, and just as he was about halfway we noticed that three of the local women, two of them with babies on their backs, were wading through the river rather than taking the bridge. You should have seen our faces after seeing that.

Many people have asked me, "Despite all the hardships that go along with being a volunteers, do you consider it a rewarding and worthwhile experience?" My usual response is that there is no doubt it is an emotional roller coaster, but if you narrow out all the ups and downs it is without a doubt the best thing I've ever done in my life thus far. You learn more about yourself, and the world around you, than any other experience I know of because you don't just leave the U.S. to visit somewhere else. You leave it all behind to live and work and become an integral part of a small community. You leave it all behind to figure out that all you really need to be happy is not restricted by imaginary lines on maps and abstract ideas related to geography. People are the same wherever you go, and it is the joy in realizing this that can make home a much less distant place to be.

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