2010.08.10: August 10, 2010: Peace Corps Volunteer "JBrown" writes: Why I Made the Decision to Leave Peace Corps

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Guatemala: Peace Corps Guatemala: Peace Corps Guatemala: Newest Stories: 2010.08.10: August 10, 2010: Peace Corps Volunteer "JBrown" writes: Why I Made the Decision to Leave Peace Corps

By Admin1 (admin) ( on Friday, December 17, 2010 - 8:59 am: Edit Post

Peace Corps Volunteer "JBrown" writes: Why I Made the Decision to Leave Peace Corps

Peace Corps Volunteer JBrown writes: Why I Made the Decision to Leave Peace Corps

"The main two factors that led to my decision were the lack of adequate housing in my site and communication issues, both with my community and the Peace Corps. My boss placed me in a site that, I believe, did not have housing prepared for me. I was placed in a tiny house typical of the houses that could be found in my town. It was made out of wooden boards. There were two huts, the first one was essentially one large room. This first hut had a tin roof, which was rare in my community. My room was separated by the main room by 4 wooden boards that were tacked up to form a makeshift wall. My APCD, or Assistant Peace Corps Director required the family to build this wall prior to receiving a Peace Corps Volunteer. It was easy to look through the large spaces in between the boards into my room, and if there was a great desire, it was not difficult to look over the top of the boards into the room, as well."

Peace Corps Volunteer "JBrown" writes: Why I Made the Decision to Leave Peace Corps

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Why I Made the Decision to Leave Peace Corps (Part 1)

I know that many of you are interested in why I decided to leave Peace Corps Guatemala. This is my decision, the decision that was ultimately best for me. Life is too short to be unhappy, and I was not only unhappy, but miserable. In addition, I had lost my sense of humor during my time at my site, and for those of you who know me, you know how important free-spirited humor is to my life. This is not an attempt to berate Peace Corps, nor is it an attempt to convince people to stay away from the organization; Peace Corps is a wonderful organization witch much to offer. This is just one story among many Peace Corps stories. I hope you will appreciate it for what it is worth and reach your own conclusions based on the evidence. This report is obviously subjective, because it happened to me. I will do my best to describe the events leading to my decision as they unfolded. When writing something like this, it is difficult to not come across as overly negative and bitter. I write about the negative things because they are what caused me to make my decision. What I hope is that my story gives just one more perspective of the Peace Corps experience. Thanks for reading.

The main two factors that led to my decision were the lack of adequate housing in my site and communication issues, both with my community and the Peace Corps. My boss placed me in a site that, I believe, did not have housing prepared for me. I was placed in a tiny house typical of the houses that could be found in my town. It was made out of wooden boards. There were two huts, the first one was essentially one large room. This first hut had a tin roof, which was rare in my community. My room was separated by the main room by 4 wooden boards that were tacked up to form a makeshift wall. My APCD, or Assistant Peace Corps Director required the family to build this wall prior to receiving a Peace Corps Volunteer. It was easy to look through the large spaces in between the boards into my room, and if there was a great desire, it was not difficult to look over the top of the boards into the room, as well.

I remember the first night. I was terrified. My host dad showed me to my room, and I saw that there was a wooden table to my right, a wooden window above the table, and another wooden structure in the back of the room. I started to feel overwhelmed when I realized that the wooden structure would be my bed. Since I arrived at my site in the late afternoon, there was not time to buy a mattress. I also had not figured out a way to rig my mosquito net from the wooden boards, so that first night I slept on top of the wooden board wrapped in my mosquito, shuddering from fear of the tarantulas that were all over the walls.

The children would constantly look through the cracks in the walls. I constantly felt like I was being watched, and, in fact, I was. I could not go anywhere in the tiny community without everyone knowing exactly what I had been, what I was doing at that moment, and what I would be doing later. That, however, is to be expected in a town of 300 people where a Volunteer from the US sticks out like a sore thumb. On the contrary, I did not feel that I should be faced with constant scrutiny and watchful eyes in my own room. It may have been better if I had my own room separate from the family, but I technically shared one room with 7 other people. If there was a light on in the other room, it was on in my room. If there was a baby screaming or crying in the other room, which happened constantly, it was like they were screaming in my room. I barely slept at all due to the large number of infants screaming throughout the night. I would not be able to fall asleep easily, and I would wake up multiple times during the night due to incessant racket. Throughout the first couple weeks and months, I kept telling myself that Peace Corps is supposed to be difficult, and that I was a bad person for even thinking about complaining, since this is how people live in this community. At times, there were 16 people in this house. 7 would sleep in the first main room, and the rest would sleep in the kitchen. My host mother and father had a room that was still part of the second structure, but it was off to the side of the kitchen. partially blocking it from the constant fumes.

Food was another story altogether. I ate my meals with the host family, giving them money to buy food. The portions they gave me were meager. I wanted to be polite, so I did my best not to complain about the food. Early on, when talking about the need for more food with my host dad and host brother, the only two in the family who could speak Spanish, I was told that food was hard to come by, and that they could not offer much. I accepted it, acknowledging that I realized food was scarce, but that I needed a little more, because my body was used to more food. I tried to always place the blame elsewhere, on my body, on Peace Corps, on anything else but myself. I wanted everyone to like me. I wanted to blend in.

There would always be plenty of tortillas, but a diet based solely on tortillas does not provide much nutrients. In addition to the tortillas, there would be one other food item, and on very rare occasions, a third item. Sometimes it would be one scrambled egg. Other times it would be a tiny bowl of beans. On occasion, all I would get was a bowl of hierbas, a leafy plant that would be boiled. It tasted what I think leaves and grass would taste like. Most of the time, there were parts of the leaf that could not be chewed, and I ended up spitting most of the food back into the bowl. Again, I did not want to complain because this is what everyone in the family ate on a daily basis. For a couple days, the family only ate mushrooms that they had found outside. They told me that they may upset my stomach and suggested that I not eat them. I was happy to heed their advice.

Almost all of the food was extremely greasy. It was cooked over an open fire in a large black cauldron. Over time, after about a month, I developed intense acid reflux. After swallowing something, an intense pain would rise in my chest, as if someone had just punched me. After laying down to sleep, I would have pain so severe that I had difficulty breathing. The same thing happened when I did anything active, such as playing soccer with the guys in the community. I kept hoping it would just go away. As my problems and concerns compounded, I remained scared to call Peace Corps for help. Past Volunteers told me that my APCD hated complainers, and being one of his favorites, I did not want to get on his bad side.

Yet, I constantly became ill from the food that I was eating. I had diarrhea every week and perpetual stomach pain. This was not happening to just me. It seemed like every week that there was someone who was very sick in my host family. It probably stemmed from unsanitary food. Women would carry ducks across the kitchen to take them outside. There would always be wild animals, such as ducks, chickens and stray dogs that would wander through the kitchen. After touching the animals, the women would not wash their hands. Children would urinate on the kitchen floor. I was terrified to eat with this family; everything that was happening was running contrary to what we were taught by the medical office staff during training. I wanted to integrate, though, and I kept my mouth shut for the time being.

Everyone in the family continued to get sick, one 2 year old girl even became deathly ill. She had a fever that had not broken for 4 days, and the family was not giving her water. I tried to convince my host dad and host brother that they needed to keep her hydrated and that it was very dangerous for an infant to have a fever for such a long period of time. They looked at me almost mockingly, wondering why this foreigner was giving advice on how to care for their family member. The girl began throwing up worms and looked like she was about to die. Her eyes rolled back, and she could not get the strength to move any part of her body. She used to be a jovial and vibrant, but everything had changed. I argued with my host brother, who was her father, that he needed to take her to the hospital very soon, even if it would cost a lot of money. I left the house after having conversations with him extremely frustrated. Tears would well up in my eyes as I thought about how this child may not live to see another day. I knew that the death of a child was commonplace for the families in my community, but I knew that it could be prevented. The next day, my host brother took his daughter to the hospital, paid 200 quetzales, or $25, and got the medicine. In a few days, she was back to normal. 200 quetzales was a LOT of money for the family, but they saved the girl's life, and they were happy that they made the decision to do it. The Peace Corps experience was really starting to have an effect on my mental and physical health.

All of this time I struggled to communicate in a site where the primary language was not Spanish. 90% of my town of 300 did not speak Spanish. Being in the top Spanish group during training, I guess my APCD figured that I would be able to quickly learn another language. However, I was sent to this site without any training in the Qeqchi, the Mayan spoken in the area where I was living. Not one class. I spent the first 2 months scrambling to find a good Qeqchi teacher. The problem is that most Qeqchi teachers do not know how to explain grammar. They are unable to answer seemingly simple questions, and soon both the teacher and the student become incredibly frustrated.

I will forever wonder why I was not trained at all in the Mayan language. I am sure that Volunteers in Kyrgyztan are not sent out into their communities with zero knowledge of the community's primary language. Volunteers in China do not go to their sites lacking any knowledge of Chinese. It just didn't make any sense to me.

I first found a teacher in my community. He was a pre-primary teacher, and was a nice guy, but I realized that he was unable to provide quality instruction. He would give me lists of words to memorize, words such as "crab" and "hanging." He did not have a clear lesson plan, and I decided to find another teacher. I called the Peace Corps language office and asked for help. The head of the language department said that she could schedule a week of intensive study in a town 3 hours away. I jumped on the opportunity.

The week turned out to be a disaster. The classes were given in an area that did not speak Qeqchi, but instead spoke another Mayan language, Pokomchi. The instructor was absolutely awful, and attempted to teach from a computer program that he had. Anytime that I asked him a question, he could not answer. He would refer to books, but he was never able to find anything. If I let him go, he would look through the books for 30 minutes or longer. He seemed to agree with whatever I said in order to get me to stop asking questions. I was later told by other teachers that he was not teaching me correct Qeqchi.

During the week I was staying with a host family. The host father was an intelligent man, a linguist who spoke several Mayan languages. He was available to help me during the first night. He really seemed to know what he was doing. I liked his dynamic, interactive method, and I would later decide that I wanted him to teach me. This lasted for 2 weeks, until I realized that he also did not have any lesson plan, requiring me to tell him exactly what I wanted to learn, lest I let him go off on incomprehensible tangents. Though I was extremely eager to learn Qeqchi so that I could communicate with the people in my town and have some sort of social life, I did not think that I should be the one responsible to develop lesson plans. I ultimately left my 2nd teacher and switched to yet another teacher in a city 2 hours away from my site. She proved to be the best, and I finally felt like I was making some progress. In the back of my mind, I questioned why Peace Corps did not do more to arrange classes with an effective teacher. Having no experience in the matter, I was forced to look for myself. This was only made more difficult by the array of problems that I was dealing with at my site.

During the first day of the week of intensive classes, I got really sick and had to rush to give a stool sample. For several hours I was unable to leave the bathroom for more than 2 minutes at a time,much to the annoyance of the other patients trying to give stool samples in the one bathroom that this lab had. I called the Medical Officer and was diagnosed and treated for giardia. I was violently ill the entire day, and I was getting fed up. I decided to call my training director, someone who I felt that I had developed a good relationship with during training. I also knew that I could speak in English with him in order to clearly describe all of my frustrations. Little did I know, this would be the beginning of a downward spiral and my eventual decision to leave the country.

Posted by JBrown at 11:07 AM

Labels: guatemala, Peace Corps, peace corps problems


Anonymous said...

jordan yes you did the right thing by leaving. i just hope that the peace corps head that put you in this situation is reprimanded.first you should be with a site mate,not alone..you should have some privacy in your new home and know some of the language to get by. this leader should not be able to get away with doing this.some volunteers around the world have very good living conditions.this man never gave you a chance to be a good volunteer.you went with such enthusiasm such a shame this happend,but at least you are alive.

August 10, 2010 9:27 PM

Benjamin Barnett said...

Hi there,

I can't seem to find your email address - if you could email me at benjamin.barnett@gmail.com I'd like to ask a couple of questions about Peace Corps in Guatemala that I'd rather not post here. Thanks!

August 11, 2010 10:01 AM

Anonymous said...

De la abundancia del corazon habla la boca - YOUR WORDS ARE A WINDOW TO YOUR HEART.

You have written in past entries: "Peace Corps Volunteer interactions with host communities are just two examples of important relationships that must form for a successful Peace Corps experience to ensue" yet you expect the indigenous community to take you in and make you one of their own when you think of them, judge them and openly make fun of them: "the story I wrote for the Peace Corps Volunteer newsletter. It won the best submission award, because it is the funniest thing you will ever read… Enjoy

my host mother walks by topless, completely shattering my concentration…. Doña Paulina is in control and is not afraid to manhandle a youngster.

host sisters… Catalina begins to sing, and she is shockingly terrible… I think the prerequisite for being a church singer in Guatemala is that one must be able to sing horrendously. Catalina succeeds wildly at this. Her screams escape from her mouth and scatter around the room.

….she is carrying a baby. She turns around, and I realize that she is breastfeeding a small child. She continues to breastfeed her child during the entirety of her 3-minute remarks, because, of course, that is what you do in church".

Reading everything - YES...EVERYTHING - MAKES ME SEE THROUGH YOUR CORE. And I see a man finding excuses and easily finding people to put the blame on. And YES.. I am Guatemalan..thank you for making fun of the persons you swore to help.

August 11, 2010 6:26 PM

Anonymous said...

www.oregonlive.com/travel/index.ssf/2010/08/guatem ala_some_parents_had_the.html

- Another Volunteer is at risk in Guatemala!!

August 11, 2010 7:22 PM

Anonymous said...

This blog is hard to read, with each issue that Jordan had I want to say "why didnt he keep looking for assistance?" By the time he made his decision to go home, it was too late. At so many stages there were chances to have turned things around, but it seems like he had the idea that he had to suffer in silence. There might have been a few unwise decisions from PC staff, but there was nothing that put Jordan directly in danger or in risk. Cracks between boards in the house? Put up plastic or more boards. Not enough food? Go to Chisec or Coban and stock up. Don't like the house you are in? Fix it up or make your own. I just keep feeling that this person was a little too complacent. I hate reading comments like the first Anonymous that "at least you are alive". Jordan was in no direct danger of dying, I don't know why anyone would bring that up....The last post here is awesome too, because it shows another PCV in Guatemala in a very similar situation but seems like he is being proactive and working through problems in his site....

August 12, 2010 12:18 AM

Jeannie said...

Posting negative comments anonymously is pretty cowardly.

August 16, 2010 6:29 PM

Anonymous said...

well believe it or not peace corps volunteers do die in service.jordan was put in an unsafe living condition.even though you are vacinated against malaria,and other diseases there is still a lot of insects,food,snakes in this area of guat that can be dangerous and you need a safe place to call home

August 17, 2010 10:37 AM

thompcha said...

Of the nearly 200,000 Peace Corps volunteers since 1961, only 276 have died. The most common cause seems to be motor vehicle accidents. See for yourself:

http://www.scribd.com/doc/34181690/Peace-Corps-Off ice-of-Medical-Services-Peace-Corps-Volunteer-Serv ice-Employee-Deaths-OMS-PCV-Deaths-Report-24-Pages -10-076

August 17, 2010 7:02 PM

Allison PCV Nicaragua said...

I compare Peace Corps to getting married not after, but during, your first blind date with someone. So much randomness, happenstance, circumstance and a whole roulette wheel of other factors influence the outcome of our PC experience, including who WE are and what we bring to the table. So, your marriage didn't work out. Who cares? You went, you did what you did for the time you did it. You learned a lot about a new culture and about yourself (many RPCVs cite these gains, and not tangible projects in their communities, as the main benefit from their service) and you gave all you could. This is your life. You don't owe anyone explanations or justifications. Blaming administration, the town infrastructure, etc. isn't what you're getting at here... (I don't think?) You just had needs that weren't being met, for whatever myriad of reasons and you left. End of story. Life goes on.

I don't know why people are up in arms to attack your decision or to defend it. It's not like you suffered some great moral lapse. You didn't go on a puppy-kicking baby-punching spree and then write a blog post trying to defend it. Your "ridicule" of the Baptist service doesn't constitute as puppy-kicking-baby-punching-moral-debauchery either, as the Anonymous Guatemalan poster insinuates. I don't know a single PCV that hasn't taken the piss at some aspect of their host culture. I also don't know any PCVs that would be above taking the piss at U.S. culture as well.

Here in Nicaragua we say that no matter how long you've spent here, when you leave, you will be a little Nicaraguan. I'm sure the Guatemalan experience is the same. And in turn you affected your host family and community, however briefly you were with them. It's a beautiful thing you both got to share that not all U.S. citizens get to do and that's really quite wonderful.

Best of luck.


August 17, 2010 11:28 PM

Holly said...

I do agree the PC should offer training in the indigenous language you needed to live and work in your community.

Hopefully this changes in the future. I served in Panama and the PC staff did a good job of offering spanish and indigenous languages to volunteers in addition to culture training specific to the people we worked with. Too bad this is not the case thoughout PC.

August 18, 2010 3:34 PM

faye cassell said...

As a current PCV in Morocco I share many of your sentiments. I too was sent to a village that speaks a dialect completely unrelated to the language I was taught during training, and that has had a significant impact on my ability to integrate effectively. Also, don't feel bad about not speaking to PC staff until it was too late. Sometimes I think PC breeds a mentality of "stick it out, no matter what" to the point where volunteers are afraid to discuss issues and staff regard real security/health/emotional problems as volunteers whining.

Enjoy the US!

August 18, 2010 8:09 PM

thompcha said...

So, when do we get to read part 2?

August 21, 2010 12:34 PM

beth said...

congratulations on completing seven months of very challenging circumstances and on transitioning home. hope you're not taking silly comments to heart. we're looking forward to hearing what you'll be up to next!

August 21, 2010 1:08 PM

J said...

As others have said, there were many things you probably could have done. Sure, we've all had problems with PC not doing what they said they would or otherwise not being super helpful, but this is where YOU must be proactive.

To the PCV on here who said that it's fine to mock a Baptist service.. how would you feel if I mocked you for your beliefs and basically acted as they were goofy and culturally backwards? It may seem funny to you, but as the Guatemalan poster pointed out, it's still offensive and you should have checked yourself to see if you were being culturally insensitive. The last thing Peace Corps needs is more supposedly "Liberal" and "Tolerant" PCV's who later make the rest of us look like ugly Americans!

August 22, 2010 5:56 PM

Anonymous said...

For all of the poster hating on JBrown, get over yourselves. For starters, if you haven't been in Peace Corps you opinion doesn't count. Sorry it's true.

Moving on to those negative responses from volunteers. Peace Corps staff totally blows it all the time. I can't believe anyone is even trying to defend the staff by making them appear perfect. Do they mean well, probably, but that doesn't mean they are firing on all cylinders. Many of them are so inept. Also, a major problem is that the vast majority of staff are host country nationals, and frankly they have a different definition of peace corps and what volunteers should and should not be doing. Then there are the cultural differences between staff and volunteers. Given these circumstances there are conflicts that arise. A lot of the problems in my opinion are due to a lack of resources. But trying to blankly claim that the staff is perfect is naive.

The comment trying to address JBrowns character for his comedic post is ridiculous as well. Volunteers always joke amongst themselves and poke fun at the host country nationals, just as host country nationals poke fun at volunteers. I can understand how an outsider my misinterpret it but again they are an outsider. While I may joke around about my host country nationals, I don't actually mean it, I love being where I am and the people I'm with. Its akin to playground antics, I can make fun of my mom but you can't. We live it everyday, some of the cultural differences are comical (like wise some of the things we do are funny to them) and its a stress reliever to joke about them.

Quite frankly, in my opinion peace corps is a terrible run organization, top to bottom. I've lost so much respect since joining its sad. Truthfully I'm not alone. The vast majority of my fellow volunteers feel the same way. And I am in what is considered a top performing country.

That being said, I love being in peace corps and wouldn't change it for anything. Nor would my fellow volunteers. I actually would want to work in peace corps one day to help change it because there is a lot of potential its just that in its current state its a fraction of what it could be.

Peace Corps is a very complicated organization and you don't realize it until you have lived it.

Keep writing JBrown, I hate it when someone such as yourself makes such a large personal sacrifice to apply, wait and join peace corps, only to be poorly set up and ignored.


I am a PCV that has no connection to Guatemala or JBrown. When I reference peace corps staff, I'm referring to my experiences in my country, all countries have different situations but based on talking to friends in other countries and reading blogs I'd say they are all pretty damn similar.

August 22, 2010 7:00 PM

Anonymous said...

someone said only 256 died in service..that is 256 too many..how would you like it to be your family member?plus it is not mostly car accidents. there are homicides,drownings, and unidentified deaths..read up to get your info.

August 23, 2010 10:50 AM

thompcha said...

If you read my first comment carefully, you'll see that both assertions this commenter disputes are not ones that I made.

Saying that something is "the most common cause" is not the same as saying that it is the cause in most cases.

I didn't intend to share the information in defense or in support of The Peace Corps or JBrown. I simply offered it for the sake of sharing information.

I was even gracious enough not to point out that Peace Corps volunteers are not "vacinated [sic] against malaria," but since you've called me to account, I suppose it's only decent that I return the favor.

August 24, 2010 6:50 AM

Anonymous said...

People die it's a fact of life. When you have an organization with over 200k people for 50 years people are going to die. Personally, I think that number is really small 0.013% of all PCVs have died. That should be commendable not attacked.

August 24, 2010 7:41 PM

Anonymous said...

i meant 0.13%

August 24, 2010 7:43 PM

Anonymous said...

I think you did the right thing, and your supervisor should be reported if he doesn't take complaints seriously. I know of one Peace Corps volunteer that died this past year in another country, the reasons was kept private. That area needs something more than Peace Corps to turn it around. And I wonder if the money you were giving the family for your food was feeding everyone in the family?

September 4, 2010 7:47 PM

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