Guatemala One: A Journal of the First Peace Corps Project
by George Gurney (1962–63)
Reviewed by Leita Kaldi Davis (Senegal 1993–95)
“In November of 1962, training began for the first Peace Corps project to work in the Central American country of Guatemala. In the spring of 1963, the first group of volunteers arrived in time for a military coup.” George “Lee” Gurney joined a group of Volunteers who trained in New York City, Puerto Rico, and at New Mexico State College before embarking upon a journey that widened his horizons forever. In his early twenties, he also found his wife in the Peace Corps. They both worked to help the people of rural Guatemala, but both suffered recurring health problems that truncated their tours.
Many years after his Peace Corps experience, Gurney decided to write his memoir, which is actually a diary more than an attempt at literary story telling, “. . . the exact reproduction of what I wrote in a journal of feelings, opinions, and all that went on.” It’s a log of what he ate, drank, who he talked to, what he read, and what time he went to bed. There are references to his adventures, and the world around him, the gorgeous countryside of Guatemala and its friendly people.
Gurney calls himself a “Kennedy kid,” and recalls watching the President on TV. His depiction of those first PCVs reminds the reader of unique characteristics of his generation, such as women who all wore skirts before the era of feminine pants, young men who behaved protectively towards them, and deferred to authority. There were also PCVs whom Gurney describes as prejudiced against “Negroes,” rebellious, mentally unstable, or physically at risk, who were quickly “deselected.” Gurney celebrates his wedding to Janet in Guatemala, with members of each other’s family attending, though Gurney’s joy was mitigated by the death of his mother back home.
Gurney faces typical challenges trying to conduct experimental agriculture projects, as does Janet, including the Guatemalan tendency to do things manana, and fatigue caused by the high altitude where they lived.
After each month’s diary entries, Gurney inserts a page or two of reflections on his experiences. He marvels that his notes focus a lot on the weather, horticulture and amoebic dysentery. He was also aware that ” . . . the whole Peace Corps Program was feeling its way along as to what should be taught. At that point in time, no one had yet returned from a Peace Corps Tour from anywhere.”
Their Peace Corps experience enabled Lee and Sam to later work with Accion en Venezuela, where they were glad of the Spanish they had learned in Guatemala. His last reflection echoes the feeling that most early PCVs probably carry with them:
As a member of the National Peace Corps Association, and reader of the Peace Corps Times, I am thrilled to see all the wonderful work being done around the world by the current crop of volunteers. And that already done by the more than 250,000 volunteers since it all began.
I’m glad we were there at that place and time and I would fervently hope that new generations of young people will be motivated to do similar or better good works in the future. As I encourage that to happen, I sit here in quiet and peaceful retirement. Very much aware that the pace of life in the 21st century has increased such that were I to step directly from those distant days to the present, I should not be able to survive it.
George Gurney’s book is a particular voice among the vast and ever expanding chorus that enriches the history of our country and of its greatest experiment.
Leita Kaldi Davis (Senegal 1993-95) worked for the United Nations and UNESCO, for Tufts University Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and Harvard University. She worked with Roma (Gypsies) for fifteen years, became a Peace Corps Volunteer in Senegal at the age of 55, then went to work for the Albert Schweitzer Hospital in Haiti for five years. She retired in Florida in 2002. She wrote a memoir of Senegal, Roller Skating in the Desert, (amazon.com) and of Haiti, In the Valley of Atibon. Leita is also Coordinator of the UN Women Gulf Coast Book Club.