Accompaniment of a Mayan lawyer in San Juan Sacatepéquez, Guatemala.

Guatemala: A day in the life


Owen Campbell is from Quebec, Canada. He was a volunteer on PBI’s team in Guatemala in 2007. He wrote this piece in 2008, shortly after he returned from his year in the field.

The story begins 6 years ago. I was 23, just out of university, and eager to visit Guatemala, the country I had been dreaming of ever since I took a “Geography of Central America” class. I was horrified by the huge injustices that were occurring all over the Americas. Yet, when I ended up in Guatemala, none of the suffering of this fractured society could be seen on a superficial level. Had my teacher made it all up? There were well heeled travelers sipping beers, buying souvenirs, taking vacation photos, smile, click, click.

With the ink barely dry on the 1996 peace accords, the casual gringo (me included) could not easily see evidence of the 36 years of the armed internal conflict which had, technically, ended a few years before. I spent the next four months traveling, exploring and learning. I left Guatemala confused, but knowing that I would be back.

Those four months allowed me to see that, yes, there was evidence of the recent terrible past, but it wasn't obvious. You could find it if you took the time to listen to the silences and deep pauses when a conversation would steer towards the recent past.

Flash forward 5 years. I was back in Guatemala, this time as a member of PBI's Guatemala Project. This time, instead of the conflict and suffering being hidden from me, I was immersed in it. We accompanied Guatemalan human rights workers who have been direct and indirect victims of oppression and violence.

Let's begin with the PBI house. During my year in Guatemala I lived with a total of 20 different people from more than 10 countries. Picture a houseful with all that cultural and personal baggage, all working long hours, 6 days a week every day! Sounds like reality television! And, to add some spice, people are constantly rotating in and out of the team.

Just when you thought you had a grasp on the whole team thing, it would shift again. At any given moment, there are people who are on the high of arriving, people who have hit the 6 month stage and are reflective of the experience, and ‘grizzled’ vets who are looking ahead to the freedom of not living collectively once their one year volunteer commitment ends. All these variables make for exciting day to day living!

Accompanying threatened Guatemalan human rights workers is a tapestry of many different activities which everybody on the team will do at a given moment. There are the more mundane things such as report writing, answering phones, making calls, meeting with authorities, shopping for food, cleaning the house (with all communication in Spanish, mind you!) to meeting with high level authorities to traveling for three days in the Guatemalan countryside with a rural workers rights defender.

All these tasks rotate through the team. A  PBI volunteer must be open to changes because we are on call and sometimes there can be emergency situations that make us reshuffle the schedule and then shuffle it again. Here is a “typical day”:

7:30 am - Phone rings, it's my shift to be on phones, email and door answering duty. I run to the phone. It's Jorge, one of the people whom we accompany. He wants to meet with us urgently at noon. I take down the details.

8:30 am - After eating breakfast, I go to the office, turn on the computer and check if there any important emails; and print off press releases that organisations have sent us for the rest of the team to read. We must stay up to date.

9:15 am - Doorbell, it's the garbage pickup, also my job this morning!

9:30 am - Most of my housemates  are up and moving. Some are already out on accompaniment. My job as phone manager in the morning is to phone those who are out on accompaniment to see how they are doing. Everything is fine, they say. They should be back by early evening in time for supper.

9:45 am - Emergency meeting to discuss Jorge's phone call. We decide that two of our volunteers, Nadia and Kike, will go to the meeting. I then ask someone to cover me on phones because on Tuesday mornings the phone manager has to clean the living room!

1:00 - Some breathing space after cleaning; decide to check my email, write to my mom and dad…and finish a report on a meeting I had with the police chief in a small village where we introduced ourselves as PBÌ and discussed why we were in the area. I print the report and place it in a folder for the rest of the team to read.

12:30 - Check email and make a phone call to confirm our supper guest. She works for an nongovernmental organisation that provides legal advice to human rights workers and is quite high profile. Each week, we try and have at least one or two such suppers . They help to give us different perspectives of the situation in Guatemala and to maintain good relations with the social movement.

3:00 pm - Another team member and I put on our PBI vests to go do our visits to various offices of organisations that we accompany. We always do accompaniments in pairs. The idea is to keep in contact, see what their security situation is like and provide international presence in their offices.

5:30 pm - On the way back we stop for an ice cream in the central square of Guatemala City… a badly needed pause and I am relieved that it is my partner's turn to write the reports on our visits, as I did it last time.

6:00 pm - Arrive at home just in time to welcome Jacques and Maria who are back from their 3 days away accompanying Eloyda, who was giving workshops about the impacts of mining on the lake near where she lives.

7:30- 9:00 pm - Our guest arrives and I go downstairs to greet and chat with her, as does the rest of the team. We eat all together, a delicious meal, and are able to get our guest's opinion on the new government, find out more about her work and enjoy a few belly laughs as well.

9:30 pm - After the volunteer who has been the evening's cook has finished clean up, we have a team meeting so that Nadia and Kike can share what they found out in the meeting with Jorge. It turns out he needs accompaniment to the western part of Guatemala where there will be meetings with communities that work with Jorge's organisation.

As a team we weigh the security situation. Have we worked in that place before? What has Jorge's security situation been like recently? Do we have the people available to go? After discussion, we come to the consensus that we will go. The next in line on our accompaniment roster are myself and a newly arrived volunteer. I hadn't had any accompaniments planned this week so I am happy at the change of events to get to leave the capital for a bit.

10:30 pm - I pack some of my things for my departure tomorrow with Jorge. As the “veteran”, I get the emergency contacts in order for our departure.

11:00 pm - There is a soccer match on TV. Kike's team is playing. We sit down and watch the game, cheering with Kike.

11:30 pm - Bed time!