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Joining the Peace Corps had always been something I wanted to do, but I wasn’t sure I would have the courage to donate two years of my life to volunteer abroad.

A time finally came when, feeling particularly anxious about what I would be doing with my life after completing my AmeriCorps term in Seattle, I applied randomly one night around 3 a.m.

More than six months after applying for a position in the western highlands of Guatemala, I finally got on an airplane in March 2019 with about 40 other volunteers from all across the United States.

Today, I’m back home in DeLand. The worldwide coronavirus crisis cut my Peace Corps service short.

Guatemala couldn’t have seemed more different from DeLand when I first arrived. Not only did mountains surround me, but also active volcanoes that would regularly spew fumes and glowing lava that could be seen at night.

The fear of hurricanes was replaced with the fear of earthquakes, but after a few months I was accustomed to an occasional tremble.

Despite the differences in geography, food, culture and political climate, as time progressed, I came to realize the city I lived in (Santa Cruz del Quiché) wasn’t actually that different from DeLand. Both have this feeling of a tightknit community where everyone might not know each other personally, but people are willing to work together to improve the general quality of life.

Once you look past the first layer of a different culture, you realize we are all pretty similar.

I had been in Guatemala for just over a year — about halfway through my term — when news of the coronavirus started to surface. At this point in my service, I had gotten to really create a trusting relationship among multiple groups of indigenous people. I was also beginning to work on the topic of composting.

Guatemalans take part in a composting demonstration. The man on the left works for the Guatemalan Ministry of Agriculture.

Guatemalans take part in a composting demonstration. The man on the left works for the Guatemalan Ministry of Agriculture.

Over the course of the year, and with many community meetings, we had agreed composting would be the best fit to help increase the Guatemalans’ agricultural yield. I began to work on a grant proposal to install composting infrastructure.

Despite the Guatemalan Ministry of Agriculture (aptly called MAGA) not being able to commit to the project due to difficulties with their contracts, I had promised these communities I would be there with them for the full two years to make sure they would get the best results possible.

On March 15, just 10 days past my one-year mark in Guatemala, we got an email from our country director explaining to us that we may be on lockdown in our sites due to the possible spread of coronavirus. At this point, Guatemala had its first case of coronavirus — a person returning from Italy.

About a day later, we got a message from our country director explaining that we would have between one and three days to pack up and return to the United States.

Peace Corps was, for the first time ever, returning all their volunteers to the United States. While this was difficult news to bear, I appreciated the three days so I could say goodbye to everyone and pack.

The following day, around noon, we were told we actually only had one hour to pack, and that we would have to find transportation to a central meeting place.

Take into consideration that we were traveling with multiple suitcases holding all our worldly possessions. Also, some volunteers lived more than five hours from our central meeting location, and would have to travel through crowded public transportation with lots of luggage. This was made especially difficult by a growing contempt some Guatemalans had toward foreigners, due to the idea that they could be carrying the virus.

Panic enveloped me over this hour as I frantically ripped posters off the wall and crammed as much as I could into two suitcases. I had no time to say goodbye to my friends in the community or the groups that I worked with — I would have to simply disappear.

Once all 160 volunteers were rounded up between three hotels, our Peace Corps staff had the challenge of finding us flights back to the United States, while dealing with the rapidly changing laws Guatemala was implementing in response to the virus.

Staff had to acquire a plane, crew and landing clearance to leave the country. This proved to be very difficult, as the borders were already closed. We were stuck in a hotel for about three days without any idea what was going on, constantly ready to leave at a moment’s notice.

By direct contact with the Guatemalan president, Peace Corps and the embassy were finally able to get a flight for us to Miami. We got into a fleet of vans filled with all the volunteers and some high-risk embassy officials, and were escorted by a team of at least 15 to 20 police officers to the airport in Guatemala City.

A plane loaded with Peace Corps volunteers, all of whom were suddenly evacuated from positions across Guatemala.

A plane loaded with Peace Corps volunteers, all of whom were suddenly evacuated from positions across Guatemala.

Once at the airport, we boarded a single plane to Miami, where the Peace Corps volunteers would spend one last night together. The following day, each person went his or her separate way, taking flights that edged them closer to their homes of record.

I found myself here, in DeLand, at my parents’ home, where I grew up.

It was heartbreaking to leave behind everything toward which I had worked so hard. When I got home, I was in a deep state of shock, because I had been ripped from my life in less than 24 hours.

It has been difficult to process the reverse culture shock, because I haven’t left my house. However, I feel lucky that I was able to come back home to a family that loves me.

I was able to return to this community that I am proud to call home and, even though I’m not hanging out with my friends here, I feel their love, as they sent me their support and condolences.

I received so much more from Guatemala than I was able to give.

From the moment I arrived, Guatemalans took me in, and helped me integrate into their culture. They comforted me when I felt homesick, and taught me a variety of new skills, such as how to make tortillas (much harder than it looks).

Now I find myself feeling homesick for Guatemala, but I know that, between the friends I made through the Peace Corps or the Guatemalan nationals, I’ll always have a community that represents my home away from home.

— Nylen graduated with a degree in anthropology from Syracuse University. Asked for a little background on himself, he said, “Groomed dogs and lawns before joining AmeriCorps despite never having groomed himself.” He hopes to make a career working with food-access-development projects nationally and abroad. Contact him at nylenrussell@gmail.com.

<img class="wp-image-4096 size-large" src="https://www.beacononlinenews.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/15e6e1908231cb45ef582780ec4b8644.jpg" alt="GUATEMALA-BOUND — Russell Nylen shows off his certificate upon completing Peace Corps training, an intensive, two-month course with more than 160 hours of lessons in language, culture, and technical training. He was assigned to work in a rural region of Guatemala.” width=”696″ height=”696″ />

GUATEMALA-BOUND — Russell Nylen shows off his certificate upon completing Peace Corps training, an intensive, two-month course with more than 160 hours of lessons in language, culture, and technical training. He was assigned to work in a rural region of Guatemala.

 

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