Nebaj Notes: Revisiting Peace Corps Guatemala
Taylor Dibbert (Guatemala 2006–08) — freelance writer
I RECENTLY DID ONE OF THOSE “security clearance” interviews. A friend of mine listed me as a reference; he had applied for a job with a certain U.S. government agency.
I’d never done an interview like this.
Minutes into the conversation, I’m reminded that I know a lot about this guy (the person whose background is being ‘checked’), which really shouldn’t come as a surprise. I’ve known this person since 2006; we lived in the same rural town in Guatemala – Nebaj – for two years.
We were Peace Corps volunteers.
The Peace Corps is an awesome journey. Yet it’s not something that one does alone. Lasting friendships are cultivated during those highs and lows. And some of the strongest relationships are formed in one’s “site.” In our case, rather uniquely, one of the members of our Nebaj crew was English. So, that individual wasn’t a Peace Corps volunteer, yet formed an integral part of our social circle.
Ten years on, those times in Nebaj feel like they took place both yesterday and a lifetime ago. We were so young, so full of life and no strangers to spirited debate.
For two years, your Peace Corps site is intertwined with your identity and you really can’t stay mentally healthy if you don’t have friends in the village or town in which you live. Additionally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Lynn Roberts. Lynn was basically the reason I was assigned to live and work in Nebaj. He was officially my boss at the nongovernmental organization that I worked at – and that he founded. Lynn was also a mentor, an inspiration and sometimes more of a father figure than anything else.
In Nebaj, there were some late nights for sure, talking about the Iraq war, George W. Bush’s presidency, upcoming travel plans, or the books we were currently reading. There was a lot of agreement on many things and there was also a lot of disagreement.
Nonetheless, friendships don’t thrive on late nights, debate and cheap rum alone. It’s the consistent interaction in other spaces that adds up over time. The phone calls. The ongoing discussions. The quick cups of tea or coffee. The lazy Saturdays with newspapers and magazines. Watching sports. Grabbing lunches or dinners. Just hanging out. Just doing whatever, really. Just being there. And then days go by and months go by and those months become years. Secrets are shared. Memories are made. Bonds are built. This stuff matters. It mattered to me then and it still matters to me now.
Through it all there was also, consistently, respect and really – even though four young guys aren’t necessarily great about sharing their feelings – an appreciation for one another. There was a sense of community, a sense of family. We were all in it together – because we were.
So, as I was being interviewed – just days ago – for my friend’s background check, these feelings and thoughts were all coming back to me.
You want the people you care about to succeed. And so, I was answering these questions and a cascade of memories and broader reflections about friendship, the Peace Corps and values were also floating around in my head.
Toward the end of the interview there are questions about if this person – my friend – could be trusted with sensitive information, or if he would be okay in a job that involved handling sensitive information. I don’t remember exactly the way things were worded, but I remember my answers quite clearly.
“I would trust him with my life.”
“Absolutely,” I told the interviewer.
And after the woman has recorded my responses and moved on I just want to make sure that she fully comprehends what I was saying.
“Just to clarify. I don’t say that about a lot of people,” I told her.
The Peace Corps is about making mistakes and learning and trying to be a part of something that’s bigger than any single person. It’s also about having fun and not taking oneself too seriously. It’s about listening and then doing and trying to learn, learning on the job. But, no matter what, the experience has always been about people and connecting with people. It’s about taking the time to form friendships – with Americans and foreign nationals – that may last far longer than a volunteer’s twenty-seven months of service.
The Peace Corps stays with you. The memories. The failures. The frustrations. The regrets. The small victories. The big successes. The highs and lows, all that other stuff in between. And, hopefully, the people with whom you share it stay with you too.
This piece first appeared in HuffPost on 05/22/2017.