Greetings from Guatemala! Catching up with Grant Picarillo
For the past 20 months, Fairfield's Grant Picarillo, 25, has worked in Zaragoza, Guatemala for the Peace Corps. This summer, his tour will come to end and he'll head to the Harvard School of Public Health in the fall.
On Wednesday afternoon, the Fairfield Citizen caught up with Grant, just after he'd gotten home from teaching. He talked on his cell phone from his apartment, and horns beeped in the background, as his town recently relocated a bus stop just outside his window.
Q Grant, what's a typical week look like for you?
Waking up to the sounds of roosters, cows and other assorted "farm animals" sounds like a dreamy fall vacation; a la "seeing the colors change on the Merritt Parkway," the New England bed and breakfast experience. Then add the street dogs and the viola and, my, you've experienced my never-fail 5:30 a.m. Peace Corps wake up call.
Daily chores ensue through the morning, like washing my clothes in a glorified sink and clothes-pinning them to dry, heading to the daily produce/bean market (did you know there are more than 15 types of mangos or that the best avocados you've ever eaten cost under 10 cents? Take that Whole Foods!), and either heading for a run with volcanoes smoking in the background, catching up on the local gossip, or reading the New York Times online (Crazy, right? I can't drink the tap water, but I have Internet access!).
In the afternoon, I head out to one of three local middle schools where I work as a guidance counselor and de-facto English tutor teaching "life skills." The subjects can range from self-esteem to family planning, violence prevention to community leadership. These weekly "chats" with the students are part of my primary Peace Corps project entitled "Youth Development."
Aside from the "nine to five" grind, which really is "one to six" as that's the middle school schedule here, I'm usually working on HIV-prevention workshops, hanging out with local friends -- American and Guatemalan -- or cooking a sexy vegetarian meal (You'd be vegetarian, too, if your local butcher didn't have refrigeration; or if you cared about animal cruelty, the degradation of our environment or your health...but I digress).
At the end of the day, I normally curl up with a good book or to watch a great-quality pirated movie, found at all larger markets in Guatemala. Bet you haven't seen all Oscar nominated films for fewer than 20 bucks, have you? Don't lie, your jealous.
Q So what are your primary goals in Zaragoza?
My primary goals while living and working in Zaragoza for the past 20-plus months have been both personal and professional. On a professional level, I am working to ensure that local youth feel better-prepared to make "smarter and healthier" choices about their futures with particular emphasis on their sexual health: i.e. HIV and STD-prevention knowledge and insight into family planning practices.
On a more personal level, I hope to share tidbits of American culture and my personal beliefs with Guatemalans, while at the same time being open and curious with respect to Guatemalan people and their culture. All this and of course, staying happy, healthy and forever challenged.
3) What have your living situations been like?
You know, living in Guatemala has been an eye opening experience. Moving past the realm of tourist to one of an actual Piasano, or countryman, has been a fascinating transition. While I used to travel in hotels and -- let's be honest -- hostels, living first with an extremely impoverished (think, dirt-floor kitchen and open-wood fire) host family and now a modest apartment (with a floor, thank you very much) has truly helped me better understand how the majority of the world lives.
And no, it's not in Connecticut-style McMansions. It's funny though, while adjusting to life with little to no amenities or creature comforts privy to us in the US was difficult at first, I've learned to live with less and, most importantly, still be happy. It's funny, though many of these families in rural Guatemala have so little, practically nothing, they have been some of the most generous people I've ever met: Willing to offer you one of their two beds in a family of 11 or their best plate of food while they suffer from malnutrition. It makes you think, "Would I do the same?"
Q How do cultural differences challenge your ability to achieve those goals?
The cultural differences between the U.S. and Guatemala run many and run deep. Such challenges, like the importance -- or lack thereof -- placed on punctuality, efficiency and cleanliness would drive the average American crazy. And truth be told, it took me many months to adapt to and accept these cultural norms. Imagine, for a second, heading to a work meeting in the US that starts two hours late, riding a bus where the driver decides when he wants to leave and what route he'll take on that day, throwing your trash into the street, or lighting it on fire? These cultural differences and social norms can be some of the most frustrating for Americans living in Guatemala and speak to the patience we must use when living in such societies.
Other cultural chasms like being an atheist in a God-fearing Catholic country, or being a proud gay man in an extremely homophobic country, also make life here, well, interesting to put it nicely. (Though on second thought, doesn't the U.S. also have a separation of church and state problem and aren't Americans in general sadly bigoted and hateful toward gays and lesbians? Food for thought.)
That said, we all make sacrifices to live and work here in Central America, to make a difference, and to learn from the people of Guatemala that, for example, maybe life would be better if we Americans didn't rush to our nine-to-five every day, only to forget about our families, or that snack every two hours can be quite refreshing.
QOutside of town, what are you up to with the Peace Corps as a whole?
Outside of town, I try to stay involved with a few different Peace Corps initiatives. As the LGBT representative on our Gender and Development Committee, I sponsor a support group and work to promote a culture of acceptance for non-straight volunteers here in Peace Corps Guatemala. Recently I put on a "Safe Zone" LGBT sensitivity and "ally" development training for all in-country staff - a training I underwent myself while I was an undergrad at New York University. This is now being replicated in Peace Corps Tanzania, Philippines and Jordan! Also, as the chair of our HIV prevention committee, I can often be found around Guatemala helping other volunteers organize and realize HIV prevention and advocacy events in their own sites.
QHas spending so much time there changed your perception of Guatemala or of the U.S.?
In very simple terms, I will never look at Guatemala or the U.S. the same. While I used to think that Guatemala was just some coffee-producing country south of Mexico, I now understand this "Land of the Eternal Spring" to be a place of incredible diversity. A place where around 50 percent of the population is indigenous Mayan, a country that is still recovering from a 36-year civil war, which ended in 1996, a land where corn is king and the volcanoes and earthquakes are many, a place where the people will befriend you just because you smile.
As for my perception of the U.S changing, it's more that I better understand just how privileged we are simply to have an American passport, rather than the "idea/dream of America" being fundamentally altered in my head. Not only do we have so much and are privy to so many luxuries when compared to many south of our borders, but we generally have access to potable water and a working, flushable toilet, which, trust me, doesn't seem special until you have food poisoning and there isn't one for miles. I'm hoping to take this new-found respect for Guatemala and to better appreciate the simple accouterments of the developed world when I finish Peace Corps in June and head off to graduate school at the Harvard School of Public Health.
QPeace Corps is an extension of the State Department, yes? Have you met any bigwig politicians in your time?
Peace Corps is actually an independent, non-political agency from the State Department, though we share many similar values and overlap in our general mission. I have had the incredible opportunity to meet both George W. Bush and Hillary Clinton during my Peace Corps service. The former at the White House during my preliminary staging event in Washington, and the latter at the Ambassador's house just a few weeks ago here in Guatemala. I must be honest: Hillary, if you are reading, I'm a huge fan. I think you are tour-de-force of poise and intelligence, a policy wonk demi-godess, a standard bearer for women and populations put down by the old boys club (think: the gays) and I would love to work for your administration come 2016.
QWhat is the geography in Guatemala like? Do you get to travel?
I have been fortunate enough to get to see all but one or two of Guatemala's departments (equivalent of U.S. states). Given that Guatemala is approximately the size of Ohio, traveling from coast to coast isn't too hard, though if you think you're going to get an American-style interstate paved highway to do so, think again! I'd suggest the colonial town of Antigua, the Mayan ruins of Tikal, the limestone lagoons of Semuc Champey, and the volcanic black sand beaches of Monte Rico for any readers considering a trip to Guatemala.
QWould you recommend to a high school or college student here trying out the Peace Corps?
Without hesitation. Peace Corps can be very trying and hard at times -- we volunteers get pushed out of our comfort zones day-in and day-out. But is there anything better, I ask? You will meet incredible people, learn much about yourself and the world, and make memories you never thought possible. Just make sure to pack your head lamp!
QWhat, briefly, is the wildest story that comes to mind from your time there?
I went to my local department capital to help a local man find a wheelchair. What I thought would be a half-hour affair turned into a clown-show of actors interpreting the word of God through the art of mime (you can't make this stuff up!). An hour later, after my friend got his wheelchair, I wound up translating all morning for a group of Canadian mechanics who could fix a wheelchair with a blindfold on, but couldn't speak a lick of Spanish.