Hello there! As many of you may already know, Peace Corps volunteers all over the world were evacuated due to the Corona Virus Pandemic. Some of you might be asking what exactly does being “evacuated” mean? In a nutshell: we are being sent back to our home of records and are being granted a Close of Service…ergo due to the pandemic we have fulfilled our service. While many back home may be happy to see us return, the reality is that this has been a traumatic heart breaking experience for us to endure. I can only speak for myself in this blog post…but the growing consensus amongst the Peace Corps Volunteers is that: “We are straight up not having a good time.” This evacuation has hit us all differently, I will do my best to document my experience and the days leading up to the event. But please understand that if you know a volunteer please do not try to invalidate their feelings or try to find the “silver lining” of this event for them. Please give us time to process what we are experiencing. Many of us, myself included, are still coming out of shock. We were pulled from our lives, our homes, our loved ones and were sent back to the United States in a moments notice. Many of us did not get a chance to say goodbye to those that we care about. Some of us left our sites with only the clothes on their back and nothing else. All of us chose to serve our Host Country for 27 months of service….our service was cut short.
This time last week (March 13, 2020) I was in my site, planning my classes for the following week. I was looking through a lesson plan covering the Corona Virus that I wanted to teach in my classes. (And provide preventative measures to my students) At this point in time there was a lot of tension in the air due to the virus. Nobody really knew what was going on or what was about to happen. That evening I ran out to do some shopping and grab some dinner. As soon as I sat down to eat said dinner the President of Guatemala provided an update on the Corona virus situation. At that point in time, there was only 1 confirmed case in the country. He told everyone to stay calm, that there would be no restrictions in country, to go out and enjoy life, and to not buy all the toilet paper….Within 24 hours the situation escalated drastically.
On Saturday afternoon, (March 14, 2020) the President issued that all schools be shut down for 3 weeks. He mentioned several other warnings and restrictions, U.S. Citizens being banned from entering Guatemala for instance, but this is the only one that really affected me. (My Schools were closed) I immediately rushed home to my host family as I knew things were going to get worse. That night we received an email from our Country Director saying that the Peace Corps globally was offering volunteers the option to take “Interrupted Service” an option where you could end your service and reinstate at a later time should the global situation improve. At that moment I decided that I would do whatever it takes to stay in Guatemala. I told some of my host family that night what the situation was. Little did I know that things would get worse.
On Sunday afternoon, (March 15, 2020) we received word that our global director was suspending Peace Corps operations globally and evacuating all volunteers. Shit at this point really did hit the fan. My entire whatsapp group chat filled with other PCVS lit up like the 4th of July. We had no idea what exactly a global evacuation entailed. Our Country Director gave us additional information a couple hours later. My department was to evacuate that following Tuesday. That night I spoke to my host dad and told him the situation. My host family already started seeing the affects of the Corona virus as all travel from Europe and the U.S. had been cancelled….my host dad, a tourist driver, had 5 trips into the capital cancelled.
That night I started to pack up my room and decided to pack my essentials only. Whatever I left behind I wanted my host family to keep and use should they need it as realistically I did not know when I would return or if I would return. That night I got a couple hours of sleep and made the decision to run the last of my errands the following day and say goodbye to my host family, friends, and coworkers I had made in site.
Monday March 16, 2020 was a very sad day. I told my host sisters Carmen and Manuela first what was going on. This came as a shock to them as I had expressed multiple times that I would do my best to stay. To my initial surprise I broke down to them. Guatemala is a country dominated by machismo, a man showing vulnerability or emotions like I did is extremely rare and out of character. Through my tears I told them multiple times that I didn’t want to leave. That I wanted to stay, this was my home, I was happy here…After I regained my composure I headed out of town to run some errands and say good bye to my friend the tuk tuk driver.
When I got home I decided to track down my other two host sisters to say good bye. My Host sister Imelda works in the towns cultural center. When I told her that I was leaving we both broke down and cried. She was the first one in the family that took me in when I got to site. She is a strong, kind, caring woman that always made sure I was doing okay.
I asked if she could take me to see my other host sister Nicolasa. When we got to my host sisters house we were greeted by my host niece Estrella. She ran to get her mom when she saw that we were both crying. I told Nicolasa that I was leaving and once again broke down. Like Imelda, Nicolasa was the second host sister that took me in. She is an extremely kind, confident, independent woman. Over the last few months she became my favorite host family member as we would always sit down and talk and share our life experiences. (She is also 26, married and has an extremely funny daughter).
After I said my goodbye, I decided to walk around my community one last time. I truly feel that I was blessed with the best site, family, socios and students. I do not know when I will return to Guatemala, but when I do, I am going to fight to return to my site and host family. After walking around the site and admiring the view of Lago Atitlan one last time, I got the opportunity to have one last English class with three of my students. Seeing and interacting with them really lifted my spirits and reinforced my decision to return to Guatemala… I am happy that I was able to see them before I left…30 minutes after our class I got the TEXT to evacuate from site and meet other volunteers in our consolidation point. My time in my community was cut short, I am happy and blessed that I was able to spend one last morning/ afternoon in my site. There are several volunteers that were pulled out from their sites that morning and did not have a chance to say goodbye to their loved ones.
My host dad took me to the consolidation point and gave me a big hug and told me he was expecting my return. I am thankful for him and my host step mom. My regret is that I did not spend as much time with them as I should have. After waiting in our consolidation point for Peace Corps Volunteers and Staff we were sent to a hotel near the Peace Corps Office.
Peace Corps Hotel
After a two hour drive from our Department we finally made it to the Peace Corps Hotel. We believed that we would be flown out that night or the next day. We were wrong….we would be flown out Wednesday afternoon… After getting to the Hotel I ran to give my site mate Alexandra a hug. She has been my rock since I got to site and one of my best friends in country. I also caught up and hugged the volunteers who were there from my cohort. The Peace Corps did not put all 169 volunteers in one hotel. We were spread around 3 hotels around Sacatepequez. A number of us were divided between different cohorts. My hotel hosted people from my cohort (volunteers who were in country for 6 months), 1st year and 2nd year volunteers. We also had the new batch of trainees in our hotel. For me personally it was my first time not only meeting all the volunteers in my beautiful department of Solola, but it was my first time meeting the bulk of volunteers staying with us. As volunteers we were all experiencing similar feelings: sadness, grief, anger, despair… (the list goes on) Our energy levels were on a completely different level compared to the trainees who had just arrived in country. We all felt defeated…for me personally waves of sadness would hit me over the next few days. I found myself crying to either Alex or my Kan (cohort) mates. I saw so much solidarity amongt volunteers in the Hotel. This solidarity has also been shown to us by Returned Peace Corps Volunteers country wide who are providing us with much needed support. (By us I mean all 8000 volunteers who were sent home) The bulk of my time in the hotel I spent it with Alex and a small group of volunteers from her cohort. We did our best to cope. (Shout out to the Megabed we made and baby shark) I also got the chance to convivir with members of the new cohort. They are super sweet and caring people, I am hoping to see them once again in country once this mess is resolved.
Sometime between Tuesday and Wednesday we were given word that a police escort would be taking us to the Airport. A few days before the Guatemalan President Shut down all flights in and out of Guatemala. In addition, he shut down all public transport. When I left to my consolidation point I was only able to grab 1 bag as I was told that they might shut down the main road between my site and the consolidation point. (I literally left Guatemala with the clothes on my back) The Presidents restrictions made it difficult to mobilize volunteers and get them out. While it was frustrating for us we understood that it was for the safety of the Guatemalan people.
While we were waiting to leave, I was angry that we were being pulled out. Like I stated before I did not want to leave, my site is my home, Guatemala has become my home. My Country Director said something to us that stuck with me and helped me accept the Peace Corps decision: “The last thing we want is for an American Citizen/ Peace Corps Volunteer to get sick and take up space and or a bed in a Guatemalan hospital that could have gone to a Guatemalteco.” Should I have stayed and something happened to me I would be doing a disservice to the Guatemaltecos… I could not live with that.
Wednesday afternoon we found ourselves mobilizing into shuttles. We were escorted to the capital by a police escort. Our flight was only approved by the Guatemalan Government because we would be flying at risk U.S. Embassy Staff. Upon arriving to the airport we were able to meet up with the rest of the 169 Volunteers/ Trainees. I hugged everyone in my cohort as this took a toll on all of us. I was able to spend the rest of my time in country as we were waiting to board with my cohort “family” and making calls to my host families, socios, and host country friends.
Later that night we finally arrived to Miami….if I am being honest by this point in time I was exhausted (we were all exhausted) I believe between Monday and Thursday I only got 4 to 6 hours of sleep in total. Upon arriving in Miami we ubered to our Hotel, got dinner, and spent our last hours together with our PCV groups. (I hung out with my cohort family before getting a couple of hours of sleep) Later that morning, me and my site mate Alex headed off to the airport to catch our flight to LAX. Upon arriving to LAX I had to double check with my parents to make sure they found me a secure place for me to stay for two weeks. All Peace Corps Volunteers have been told to self quarantine for two weeks. Both my parents are at risk and I am happy and grateful that they found me a place to stay in such short notice….I spent the rest of that day waiting in LAX for my Flight back to Fresno and later my Uber to Merced….
Quarantine/ Reverse Culture Shock
Being Self-Quarantined is not that bad. Site entry prepared all volunteers for this. I am used to being alone and being by myself. The biggest difference here is that I have access to unlimited 4G internet on my phone. The huge out pour of support from the Returned Peace Corps Community has been overwhelming and much needed. The Peace Corps staff did their best to get us out of country and into the United States…however a lot of things are still up in the air as to what will happen with us and our service. Like I said we have all been COSed…that looks a little different for everyone as does reinstatement into our host countries. We do not know when we will be able to return. A lot of things are still up in the air and all we can do is wait for further clarification and instructions. In the short time that I have been in quarantine a lot of things have shocked me.
Upon arriving in Miami I had a very jarring exchange with a Cuban Uber driver. It was nothing bad but I was very much use to Guatemalan Spanish and mannerisms. In my experience Guatemalans are very calm and reserved individuals and are always “siempre a la orden.” My Uber driver was very animated and very direct with me… it was not an experience that I needed to process upon arriving to the United States. In addition to this in LAX interacting with individuals from Spain was something that I was not ready for. Their Spanish was faster and somewhat challenging to follow. It was also extremely jarring seeing the vast amount of wealth piled into one airport. It is my honest opinion that no one should be spending hundreds and or thousands of dollars on designers bags or watches when there are people the world over struggling to survive….people in our very own country struggling to survive…but that is a conversation for another day.
I am not sure what the future holds. I do know one thing though… I will return to Guatemala. I fell in love with the country, people, and culture. I have decided it is where I want to live my life. I am not sure when I will be able to do it. I am ready to return to the Peace Corps when ever they are back up and running. I will fight tooth and nail for my site, host family, work partners, and students. My Project Managers know this and await my return. I will also do my best to return as soon as possible even if it is without the Peace Corps. My current plan is to figure out my life here in the states…and return on my own accord to teach English in my site if the Peace Corps takes a while to continue operations. Many people that I have talked to are giving the Peace Corps 6 months to get things up and running. If it does not happen, they will walk away as they cannot wait any longer. I personally realized that my plans to obtain my Graduate Degree and Doctorates can wait/ can be done later. This is what I want out of life. I will gladly return to serve the Guatemalan people for an additional 27 months of service and happily extend for an additional year after that.
In closing Guatemala has been very good to me. Evacuation has been one of the most traumatic experiences of my life. I am still in shock and will have to process and unpack what I have been through in the coming weeks and or months. I miss my site, host family, socios and students. I am looking forward to seeing them again.