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Living Conditions in Guatemala

Communications

Mail

Guatemala has not had a functioning national postal service since 2016. Private courier services can be utilized if needed at the cost of the individual Volunteer. Volunteers maximize the use of electronic communication with friends and family and purchase needed items on the local market.

Telephones

Trainees are assigned basic cellphones and cellphone plans during their Training Orientation to use throughout their service as Volunteers in Guatemala. This is an important communication tool for Volunteers and Staff. Additional airtime or internet credit is easy to obtain by going to any store or supermarket. Calls to the U.S. under most cellphone plans cost less than 15 cents per minute. Most Volunteers use the Internet for non-emergency international communications. Phones brought from the U.S. need to be unlocked to accept a SIM card in order to be compatible with local networks.

Internet

Most Volunteers bring laptop computers with them, which they use for work and personal purposes. Internet is available through WIFI modems or cellular phone data plans.

Housing and site location

Peace Corps staff works with your host agency and local leaders to locate appropriate sites in which living conditions meet selection criteria established by the Peace Corps. Because community integration enhances the quality of volunteer’s experience, you will live with a host family for the duration of your Volunteer service. Privacy may at times be scarce, but experiencing day-to-day life with a Guatemalan family will hasten your cultural adaptation, language ability, and help you appreciate the lifestyle of Guatemalan families. Houses in large towns will likely be a cement block house with a tin or tile roof. Most households in Guatemala have a pila—a large cement sink for washing dishes and clothes, with a section for collecting water. In town centers, you will likely have plumbing, although water service may be intermittent. You may have a flush toilet or use a latrine that is separate from the house. Volunteers in rural areas may live in a house of cement with a tin or cement roof and a tile or cement floor. Electricity is present in all areas. However, power outages are frequent and you may come to rely on candles and lanterns. Electric current is the U.S. standard 120 volts.

Living allowance and money management

Volunteers receive a monthly allowance in local currency that is sufficient to live at the level of the local people. The allowance covers food, housing, household supplies, clothing, transportation to and from work, utilities, recreation and entertainment, and incidental expenses. Peace Corps Volunteers are expected to live at a level that is comparable with that of their host country counterparts. The Peace Corps discourages Volunteers from supplementing their living allowance with funds from home. However, Volunteers often wish to bring additional money for vacation travel to other countries. For this, credit cards are preferable to cash. It is important for Volunteers to maintain a US bank account open for the duration for service as Peace Corps will process end of service readjustment allowance to that account.

Food and diet

Throughout Guatemala, corn tortillas and black beans are a staple. Other common foods include eggs, rice, chicken, and bread. These foods are eaten daily in most areas of Guatemala. The most common fruits and vegetables include bananas, mangos, papaya, citrus fruits, tomatoes, onions, avocado, a squash called huisquil (chayote). Chicken or pork tamales are also common, in addition to a sweet rice or corn drink called atol. There are small local stores that stock snacks, sodas, and staples. Traditional outdoor markets, where you can find fresh fruits, vegetables, meat, clothing, and household items are open on a regular basis in central towns and are always open in main cities. In larger cities, you will also find supermarkets, where you can purchase nonperishable items and imported goods. Volunteers take advantage of the opportunity to stock up on spices, peanut butter, or imported ingredients when visiting larger cities. Being a vegetarian as a Volunteer is not difficult. In many of the less developed areas, meat is rarely eaten. However, meat is prepared on special occasions and there will likely be situations when meat is offered to you. Many Volunteers have successfully served as vegetarians and you will need to find appropriate strategies to navigate these situations in a culturally appropriate manner. Volunteers will learn how to identify food sources that have less chance of contamination as well as how to disinfect water and produce products during the pre-service training period.

Transportation

Peace Corps Guatemala has implemented a comprehensive transportation and travel policy for trainees and Volunteers that limits travel in the country. Transportation and travel risks are some of the more serious safety and security concerns you will face while serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer. Because of safety and security concerns, Peace Corps Guatemala prohibits travel on some public intercity bus routes and has travel restrictions in place for various regions of the country. Some of these policies require use of specified transportation methods, avoidance of restricted travel zones, travel only in daylight-hours, and use of approved hotels and hostels. Volunteers must obtain advance authorization prior to traveling to Guatemala City or outside of designated geographic areas and must comply with travel and transportation policies.

In general, Guatemala has extensive and relatively inexpensive transportation in major urban areas and relatively good access in rural areas. Volunteers often travel around their sites for work activities on foot, in the company of other community members or work colleagues. For local travel, Volunteers usually ride in vans or “chicken buses” (U.S. school buses painted and outfitted with racks to haul supplies and sometimes animals). In other areas, pickup trucks provide transportation to villages on a regular basis instead of a bus. Sometimes, you may arrange for a ride with someone you know who has a car or pickup. For long distances on major routes, there are “Pullmans,” which are similar to Greyhound buses and provide a more comfortable and secure ride at a higher fee. In some rural areas, there may be only one bus in and out of your site daily leaving in the morning and returning in the afternoon. The Peace Corps Guatemala transportation policy will guide you on the safest and approved routes and transportation methods. Volunteers should always use the safest transportation method available. Volunteers have to take the time to plan their official and leisure trips out of their sites, using the safest transport within their budget.

Social activities

There are three prominent aspects of rural social life in Guatemala. The first are religious celebrations of the community and families. Births, confirmations, coming-of-age ceremonies, communions, marriages, and funerals are themes for the celebration of life. Funerals, in particular, are the recognition of the accomplishments and thoughts of the departed. The second aspect centers on the market, which is far more than a place to buy needed goods. The market is the place to meet and visit with people to exchange news and have discussions.

The third is inter-community competitions. Winning a soccer game against a neighboring community, or even losing, creates a sense of solidarity and identity. For most Volunteers, getting involved with sporting events and these local activities is the easiest way to integrate fully into your community.

Professionalism, dress, and behavior

Professionalism in the Peace Corps requires an awareness of the host community workplace culture, community values, and your self-presentation. To maintain a positive, culturally appropriate professional standing within a host community or workplace, Volunteers may need to adjust their style of dress, hair style, facial hair, make-up, piercings, manner of greeting others, etc. to demonstrate respect for local culture and customs. How you present yourself, in both informal and professional settings, is a reflection of you as an individual and of you as a representative of Peace Corps and the United States. In the U.S., dress (and other elements of personal appearance) may be seen as an expression of personal freedom and identity. In many host countries where Peace Corps Volunteers serve, the way you dress and present yourself may be interpreted as an expression of regard – or disregard – for those host community members around you.

Volunteers are encouraged to spend time in their communities, to develop their language skills, and to get to know the individual members of their community to better understand their traditions, culture, and local norms. As mutual trust is established over time, there may opportunities for Volunteers to adjust their personal appearance and dress outside of the more rigid local standards. Volunteers are encouraged to discuss these potential adjustments with staff and other cultural mentors.

Peace Corps Volunteers are extraordinary citizens who represent the diversity of the United States and live long-term in Guatemalan communities. Unlike others who may be on short-term volunteer assignments with faith-based or non-governmental organizations, your adherence to local customs is critical to your integration. Cultural sensitivity, respect, and awareness of appearance will greatly enhance your ability to work productively and interact socially with the people of Guatemala.

In Guatemala, professional dress is generally more formal than in the United States. Clothing is generally conservative when visiting government functionaries, ministry officials, or others in positions of authority. Close observation of your host family, work partners, and community members will allow you to be in tune with local customs and perceived as a professional.

Individuals that identify with and express gender identities outside of Guatemalan gender norms may experience challenges in adapting to local norms and integrating into their host communities. These individuals are encouraged to consult with Language and Cultural Facilitators or other trusted staff to determine effective and appropriate strategies for navigating any potential issues.

The following provides indicators of what is acceptable dress and personal appearance both in the Peace Corps offices and generally in Volunteer workplaces.

Personal Grooming

  • Hygiene: Volunteers must maintain good personal hygiene for both personal health and acceptance in local culture. Staff can help troubleshoot if access to water is a challenge to maintaining hygiene routines.
  • Hair and Beards: Guatemalans value a neat, clean, and well-groomed appearance. Volunteers should keep their hair and beards neat and clean and wear them in culturally appropriate styles. In some communities, men with long hair or ponytails may receive mixed responses or unwanted attention.

Clothing

  • Care of Clothing: In keeping with culturally appropriate norms in public and work settings, Volunteers are to wear clean garments and must avoid wearing patched or torn clothing when in the presence of others.
  • Jeans: Volunteers must avoid wearing jeans in the Peace Corps office unless appropriate due to the assigned activity (e.g., preparing raised beds), in which case the Program and Training team will advise. However, jeans may be appropriate in the work setting if the Volunteer observes coworkers wearing them for work activities.
  • Shorts: Volunteers must avoid wearing shorts in public as they are not culturally appropriate in a community or work setting.
  • Footwear: Volunteers are not to wear flip flops or sport sandals as they are not culturally appropriate in the work setting. Open-toed shoes may be acceptable, however, if the Volunteer observes coworkers wearing them for work activities.
  • Military Fatigues: Volunteers must avoid wearing military surplus clothing or equipment due to the association with civil war in Guatemala.

Other Elements of Appearance

  • Exposed Skin: Volunteers must avoid wearing pants with a low-cut waist, shortened shirts revealing a bare midriff, or clothing that exposes bare shoulders or shows a substantial amount of skin.
  • Tattoos: Peace Corps recognizes tattoos as an expression of personal identity. While on Peace Corps premises without external partners present, Volunteers may display their visible tattoos. However, while off premises, Volunteers must cover visible tattoos to the extent possible to respect community and/or cultural perceptions that associate tattoos with gang and other unlawful activities. Once Volunteers have a better understanding of their home and work environment and have developed relationships with their host family and work partners, they can explore revealing their tattoos. (Due to healthcare concerns, Peace Corps recommends against acquiring tattoos during service.)
  • Earrings: To be culturally appropriate during service, men and individuals who do not present as women should avoid wearing earrings. Volunteers with multiple piercings should refrain from wearing multiple earrings. Once a Volunteer has a better understanding of their home and work environment and has developed relationships with their host family and work partners, they can explore revealing multiple earrings.
  • Piercings: Volunteers must have no visible facial or body piercings. In most communities, facial or body piercings could receive mixed responses or unwanted attention.