"If you have come here to help me, then you are wasting your time. But if you have come here because your liberation is bound up in mine, then let us work together" -Lilla Watson, Aboriginal Activist

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Coming home

May 29th, 2012, 10:37am.  I click the confirmation icon, and book my plane ticket home.  My plane ticket to the United States of America.

Spirit Airlines, flight confirmed.

I'd been procrastinating this moment for weeks.  Possibly months.  I'd been working at Casa de la Iguana Hostel for a few weeks already and had no plans for when my month commitment was up.  Would I keep backpacking?  Would I go back to my site in Alta Verapaz?  No, I would go home.  It was time.  Time for me to see my family, my friends, and my country for a little while.  Time to start thinking about jobs.  And student loan payments.

It's embarassing now to think of how much hand-holding I needed to book that ticket.  Two days had passed since I announced "today is the day I buy my ticket home," when my manager at Iguana, Ellie, sat me down at the breakfast table and put her computer in front of me.  Katie, my new English friend, sat near by, egging me on.  Another traveler friend told me, over Gchat, to get over myself, to book the ticket already.  So I did.  I got over myself and I booked the damn thing.  After all, what was I so afraid of?  In this case it seemed that the known was scarier than the unknown.  So when that confirmation email came through I had a mini panic-attack, heart beating out of my chest, until Ellie called me over for a celebratory shot of Sambuca. Nothing like Sambuca at 11am to calm the nerves.

Over the following days the initial panic slowly subsided and I began to get more and more excited about the prospect of home.  Started thinking about hot showers, washing machines, green salads, and all the wonderful people I'd get to see.  Started to think about Chicago.  And San Francisco.  And how much I missed city life. 

Three short weeks later I landed in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, on my connection to Chicago.  Immediately I started noticing things, like how long the lines were, how incredibly unhappy the U.S. Customs officials always seem, how I was no longer a minority.  I went into the bathroom after customs and struggled to comprehend that I could now throw the toilet paper directly into the toilet.  I filled up my Nalgene at the water fountain and about cried.  Welcome to the USA: we have free, clean, chilled drinking water flowing out of fountains.  I went to the snack shack to spend the few US Dollars I had and immediately talked to the store clerk in Spanish.  Oops.  My plane was delayed, so I spend the next little while on a pay-phone hunt.  I found one, but it didn't accept coins (I would argue that this defeats the purpose of a pay-phone, but what do I know, I've been away for the past 2 years).  Instead I had to purchase a $10 (or 80 quetzales!) calling card just to place one call to my mom in Chicago.  I have 45 minutes left to talk, says the automated phone card lady.  Awesome.

Two delayed flights and half a Swedish crime thriller later, I'm home.  My parents put a "Welcome Home" sign in the front yard.  (The front yard, mind you, that does not include a bamboo shower-stall.)  My mom, upon giving me a once-over, took me immediately to the hair salon, then to the mall.  My sister showered me with hand-me-down clothes to replace my pila-tattered ones.  We got pedicures.  I ate salad.  And chinese food.  And falafel.  And ice cream.  I called the bank to see about getting a new ATM card.  After no more than two minutes the banker had canceled my card, gotten another one in the mail, and told me how to get a temporary card in the meantime.  It was that easy, and I wasn't charged a cent.  (On a side note, my new ATM card is coming equipped with "Blink," a new and exciting feature. Apparently, as this oh so friendly and cheery banker told me, "Blink" is a microchip that allows you to simply wave your card by the reader machine, so you don't have to worry about swiping it through.  I'm still lost on the targeted benefit of this, but I decided to leave the cheery banker alone and politely acquiesced to having my new card equipped with this new and free feature.)

All in all being home has been really nice.  I see-saw between feeling as if I never left, and feeling as if I've been gone a lifetime.  The little things will probably continue to get me over the next couple of weeks.  How efficient everything is, how everybody seems to be in such a hurry.  How expensive everything is compared to Central America.   How everywhere I go is air-conditioned.  In the grand scheme of it all, these little tokens of reverse culture shock aren't that hard to swallow.  The real hurdles will come when I start my job hunt, begin to tackle being an adult in America.  Nothing I can't handle though, right?  ...Right?

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Living Livingston

Check the tabs. Organize a drinking game. Do the room checks. Passports. "Buenos dias, Casa Iguana."

The hostel life.  I feel lucky to have landed myself a hostel job for a bit.  It's offered me a chance to stay in one spot for a bit, save some money, beef up my bartending skills, and best of all, learn about the inner-workings of a backpackers hostel.  So when I heard from the owner of Casa de la Iguana while I was still traveling in Nicaragua, I decided to get on a bus back to Livingston, Guatemala the following week.  And now here I am, in the small, islandesque Caribbean hub of Northeastern Guatemala where the water is as warm as bathwater, the fish is fresh, and the dreadlocks and marijuana a-plenty.

Two weeks into the job I've realized a few things.  One, that owning/running a hostel isn't as glamorous/easy as I thought; two, that living in the Caribbean is as awesome as I thought, and three, that my coworkers and I are the Slurms McKenzie's of the hostel world.  I think it's a common backpacker's dream to one day own their own hostel in some little corner of the world.  And working here hasn't changed that for me.  It has, however, given me some perspective.  Because the truth of the matter is that when you own or work at a hostel you become the constant.  Backpackers come and go everyday, but you stay put.  And if you happen to own a party hostel in the Caribbean, well, say goodbye to your healthy liver and hello to night shifts that go until 3am.  Every single night. 

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Bragging Rights

Blogger's block has really gotten to me these past few weeks.  A combination of not having a computer, the motivation, nor the inspiration has caused me to avoid logging into blogspot more actively than I avoid logging into my online banking site.  A friend I told of my blogging woes told me that my dilemma makes sense; for two years I've had a specific job, purpose, and topic for my blog. And suddenly here I am, pura mochilera, without that same sense of do-gooder purpose.  I've gone from being the lone gringa in a rural village to a life in which I'm surrounded by like-minded backpackers.  A gringo amongst gringos. 

So perhaps it's natural that I've had trouble blogging.  Nothing I've been experiencing daily as a backpacker seems to warrant writing about it.  Not compared to the crazy ups and downs and cultural stupefaction of my PC service.  But now as I sit pondering this, I realize that I've done a lot of things in the past two months that were exciting, new, and certainly blog-worthy.  Maybe I just needed some time to readjust my perspective. 

So here they are, some highlights from my travels (more soon to come):

Utila, Bay Islands, Honduras
Utila, Bay Islands, Honduras
First stop on my backpacking adventure?  Las Islas de Bahia, or the Honduran Bay Islands, named one of the best places to scuba dive in the world.  Utila, one of the smaller, less-developed of the islands, is the budget diving training center in the world.  Backpackers from all over go to Utila to dive, and I couldn't miss it.  I decided to go for my Open Water certification with Utila Dive Center, a 5-day diving course that educates divers on the basics of diving and certifies them to dive the reefs of the world without immediate supervision.  I had never dived before, barely even snorkeled, so I had no idea what I was getting myself into.  As it turns out, diving is amazing.  Once I got over the initial fright of being underwater and breathing, and got used to the equipment and the emergency procedures (what to do if you run out of air, if your dive buddy runs out of air, how to clear your mask, equalize the pressure in your ears, etc.) I found diving to be an extremely magical experience.  Floating along coral reefs seemingly weightlessly, seeing sea life happen right in front of your eyes, surfacing after a 40-meter dive and realizing what you just did and saw was of another world, was something beyond what humans should be capable of doing--it's hard to describe the experience.  I passed my Open Water exams and am now officially Open Water certified by PADI (a big thank you, Grandma Mary--your Christmas present funded the cost of my course.)  No doubt in my mind that I'll be back to Utila someday soon to get my advanced diving certificate.  It's too good of a thing to leave behind for long.  

Volcano-boarding, Leon, Nicaragua
I had heard about volcano-boarding through the backpackers' grapevine while traveling through Antigua and Xela.  So when I arrived to Leon, Nicaragua, a quaint and lovely (and oppressively hot) little city in the Southern part of Nica, I decided I couldn't leave without giving volcano boarding a go.  I was traveling with a Kiwi I met diving in the Bay Islands, so together we jumped on the back of a pick-up and sped off towards the base of Volcan Cerro Negro, the newest and most active volcano in Nicaragua.  The next 45 minutes we spent hiking up the volcano, toting the awkwardly bulky wooden volcano boards, until we reached our launching point where we donned the famous orange jumpsuits and goggles and waited for our guide's instructions.  Volcano boarding was harder than it looks.  Even though you're sitting on the wooden board (not unlike a sled), you must balance and steer yourself using subtle shifts in your body weight.  Braking is done by digging your heels into the coarse volcanic ash.  What took 45 minutes to laboriously climb up took less than 30 seconds to board down.  Despite the goggles and jumpsuit I had black volcanic ash in my mouth, ears, and matted in my hair, road-rash covering my calves from trying to brake.  Nothing a good shower and some antibiotic ointment didn't soon remedy.  And now I can say that I boarded down a 500-meter volcano at roughly 50km/hour.

Volcan Concepcion, Ometepe Island, Nicaragua
Nicaragua, much like Guatemala, has it all...volcanoes, beaches, cities, and local pueblos, all in one small country.  I easily spent a few days in the small cities of Leon and Granada, a few days "surfing" on the beautiful pacific shores of San Juan del Sur, and a few days relaxing on the lake, all without having to spend more than a few hours on a chicken bus.  I couldn't leave Ometepe without climbing Concepcion, a 1610-meter high active volcano.  I had heard warnings from other travelers who had already done the hike that the hike was quite arduous, but figured that I'd be alright.  After all, I'd already climbed the tallest peak in Central America, Tajumulco, so how hard could this one be?  Turns out, really really hard.  The 10-hour hike up the 1600-meter volcano began through encouraging jungle-covered banana plantations but quickly became an upward scramble up the sun-exposed and rocky peak where we scrambled, without grace, up the final 1000 meters of loose volcanic rock and ash.  About halfway up those last 1000 meters is when I started doubting my decision to join the hike.  I was exhausted, my body hurt, and my mind was whirling with the numbingly ongoing task of deciding where to place my next hesitant step, all while focusing on not being knocked over by the horribly violent gusts of wind.  I kept telling myself that this was Type II fun, the kind of thing that isn't in fact any fun at all while it's happening, but makes for a great story after the fact.  But then I started seeing the climbing anchors.  I remember thinking "People climb this using ropes and belays! Why the HELL am I up here doing this free-style? I'm no mountain-climber!!"  Despite my common-sense telling me otherwise, I pressed on, holding back tears as I continued the exhausting scramble up to the peak.  And then we were there, at the peak, and as I grabbed the rope that our local guide had thrown my direction (turns out that without this rope I surely would have blown right off the summit), squinting as my face and exposed arms where whipped by blowing volcanic ash particles, snot running down my face from the sulfur gases leaking out of the active volcano.  We could only stay at the peak for about 30 seconds before heading back down where the wind-force was slightly less fierce.  That's all we got.   Half a minute at the top and the exhausting upward scramble became an even more exhausting downward trudge, where every other foot hold proved unsteady, sending me to my soon-to-be very bruised backside.  But we made it down, and two days later, after the soreness in my legs had eased, I was glad I did it.  Would I do it again?  Hell no.

Refueling before starting up the last 1000 meters.

On the way down from the peak. Photo by Danny Page.

Volcan Concepcion

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Pura Mochilera

These are the days of change, the days of exploration.

Less than 24 hours after I rang the Peace Corps bell that marked the end of my time as a PCV and the beginning of my time as an RPCV, I boarded a night bus top Flores, Peten, where I'd begin my 2-month backpacking adventure. I've never backpacked alone before, and I vowed that this experience would positively frame my imminent return to the US of A.  I'm now two weeks in and having the time of my life.  Being a backpacker coincidentally requires many of the same "skills" that I picked up during my PC service--being okay with a total lack of privacy, for example, rolling with the punches, living without regular access to technology, expecting nothing to go according to schedule, and being open to having awkward conversations with strangers of all sorts.  Living oh-so-frugally and, of course, being a bit of a problem solver when the occasion presents itself.  So far, I am loving my vida mochilera (backpacker life).  I´ve met all sorts of incredibly interesting people (many of them solo travelers like myself), I've challenged myself to try new things.  And perhaps most importantly, I've learned that this life is not necessarily something I have to give up.  I've met so many people who have managed to build their lives around backpacking, traveling, diving, and volunteering while still having a career and a family and a place to call home.  The backpacking life is not glamorous, and it's not confined to the wealthy.  It's a life of penny-pinching resourcefulness, long and uncomfortable bus rides, and haggling for minutes over the equivalent of one US dollar.  But it's an incredibly exhilarating experience that I'm in no hurry to put behind me.

No es adios sino hasta luego

Goodbyes are the worst. These past few weeks I've flashed back to the more pivotal goodbye moments in my life--seeing my dad cry for the first time as he and my mom dropped me off at college; crying to my Catalan taxi driver as he drove me to the Barcelona airport after 10 amazing months studying abroad; standing at the head of the table at Aurelio's Pizza, tearfully expressing my gratitude to my family, friends, and loved ones for supporting my decision to leave for 27 long months.  All very different goodbyes, but the oh-so-familiar pit in my stomach has remained a constant. 

Just as my loved ones back in Chicago supported my departure and sent me off with love and best wishes, my loved ones here in Campur have given me farewells with similar grace and humbling generosity. My last week in site I met an onslaught of farewell 'palabras' from neigbors, colleagues, and friends, expressing their gratitude for the work that I came to do, their sadness to see me go, and their happiness that I would soon reunite with my parents and family back home.  To say it's been overwhelming would be a gross understatement. 

I find comfort in the fact that life is full of cycles.  Things tend to come full circle; its just a matter of recognizing it when it happens.  I started life in Campur with a power outage, an empty kitchen, a sick stomach, cold showers and no internet.  My time in Campur ended with the same.  My last 10 days in-site were surreal in so many ways.  Packing up my house, drafting blog posts on paper, and eating dinner every night with local families.  It was feria in Campur, which meant no classes, so my schedule was as open as it was when I first arrived.  But unlike when I arrived, my last 10 days were booked solid with meetings, farewell parties, and feria activities.  All week I had students stopping by my house to deliver handwritten goodbye cards, teachers hugging me and telling me that they love me and hope that God guides my way, local families sitting me down and feeding me one last tamale, one last tayuyo, one last plate of beans and plantains.  March heat had set in, causing my house to bloom with tarantulas, brown recluse, and mammoth cockroaches.  Two nights before my departure, I crossed paths with my first poisonous snake, which my local friend stomped to death before explaining to me how he had nearly died as a child from a bite from this same breed.  One day before I left Dona Margarita, the woman from Tzibal with cancer (see this post), died after an 8-year battle, and I went to my first qeqchi wake.  That last week in site was as emotionally jolting as I'd feared, and when I finally left that Thursday at 6am with Olga, Dilan, and Profe Erick standing watch as I rode off I felt a slight bit of relief that the goodbyes were finally over.

And then there was my send-off party in Tzibal.  It's no secret that Tzibal was my favorite community.  Working with the school and the women's group were the highlights of my service.  I feel lucky to have found Tzibal because it was Tzibal that first gave me a sense of purpose in my service.  The community has never ceased to overcome me with the level of love and openess they've given me. My send-off party was no exception. I was in the village, in traje tipico, for the long-awaited Healthy School certification ceremony. The ceremony went exceptionally well, with the message clear--we worked together to better the lives of those who matter most--the children.

Me and Dona Estela

The ceremony ended with a delicious lunch of Kakik after which most of the invitees from the Ministry of Education and Peace Corps headed out.  Estela popped up then, dragging me in her motherly way to the front of the room and telling me that she and the women's group had a surprise for me. So there I stood as some 30-odd women from the women's group trickled into the classroom we were using for the day's events, and lined up before me.  And then they began, one by one, to approach me, lay a hand on my shoulder, and express their thanks to me, producing a wrapped gift from behind their back. I stood there in awe, trying to hold my composure as the stack of gifts behind me grew and grew. And then Dona Carmen reached the front of the line. Dona Carmen has always been one of my favorites in the group, always breaking out into sassy Q'eqchi' speeches in the middle of our meetings (as one of the elder women in the group she commands more attention and respect, mother-hen style). So when she, done speaking her kind words of gratitude for the pila project, took my hand and put into it a crumpled 10 quetzal bill I just lost it. I had this flash of a grandmother tucking a $5 bill into one of those flowery stationary cards addressed to their grandchild and realized that these women were sending me off as they would with one of their own. I hugged Dona Carmen while she stood there stiff and uncomfortable (qeqchi women, especially the older generation, don't hug), crying and telling her how much I'd miss them all. Dona Carmen's was not the only crumpled bill I received that day, either.  Back home opening my gifts I couldn't help but laugh in amazement at the random assortment  of my going-away plunder--glass plates and bowls, cheap market silverware, earrings, caites (the indigenous footwear of choice), embroidered napkins, woven baskets, socks--I questioned whether they really meant for me to take it all back to America with me. 
The women's group, waiting to send me off

Presenting my photo collage to the women's group
And it didn't stop there either.  My last day in site, Estela and two other women from the group showed up at my empty, packed-up house around 5pm with my last and best going-away present--a live rooster.  "We decided to bring you this rooster so you can take it to Antigua and have a party there with your other gringo friends."  They had even thought ahead enough to bring me a box for it (airholes punched in the sides and everything).  So there I was, standing in my empty house, holding a live rooster (a sizeable one at that), realizing just how hard it was going to be to leave these amazing people behind. These amazing women who unknowingly honored me in the biggest way they could, by treating me as one of their own.

Accepting my rooster gift

Sunday, March 25, 2012

The end, the beginning

So here it is. Here I am, an RPCV, drafting the momentous final Peace Corps blog post. At the beginning of it all, when I was still drafting my posts on bits of scrap paper in my host family's house during training, I often thought about this post, wondering if I'd even make it through the 27 months to be able to write about it. And, in the optimistic moments, imagining my future self writing with wisdom and supreme satisfaction of having laboriously completed my service. And sure, here I am, I made it 24 months and I "finished." I have the signatures from up above that officially denote me as a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (RPCV). And no, it wasn't easy. And no, I don't have a sense of revelatory accomplishment that I once thought I'd have. I leave with the sense that I could have worked in my village for 5, 10, even 15 years and still not really finished. But I also leave satisfied, if for nothing else for the things I've learned, the knowledge I've gained about the world, about this country, and about myself over the past 2 years. I don't have any grand exit remarks on my work in Campur, because the reality of my service and of development work in general is that things will always be left unfinished. Sure, we got a lot done, but there's also that feeling that I could have done more. I just have to hope that the ball will continue to roll without me. I've left my footprint, and have formed bonds with people that I know won't fade. And I go knowing that this is, as ends tend to be, the beginning of something else.

What has Peace Corps taught me? On the ugly side, it has taught me to jump through hoops, to work the system, and to stay under the radar just enough. On the other hand (the hand that really matters, it turns out) I take away many pearls of valuable wisdom from my daily experience in my Guatemalan village. I've learned my true limits--I've learned what my breaking points are, and how I deal with stress, and sickness, and lack of control when I have no immediate support network. I've learned to entertain myself with nothing more than my own thoughts. I've learned to be humble, that failing is a part of life and admitting those failures and moving on is an important step for us all. I've learned that teaching is probably not for me--that it's not what I'm the best at. I've learned the power of human connection, of simple conversation, of awkward silences over cold coffee. I've learned what loneliness feels like. I've learned to be bolder and more demanding. I've learned to slow down. The list goes on.

Here marks the end of my PC Guate journey and the beginning of another. The PC umbilical cord has been cut; I find myself a traveler with the freedom to go where I please for the first time in what feels like forever. I find myself, also for the first time, a lone traveler with no other agenda than to explore a place, experience new things, and meet new people. And I move on knowing that despite its great imperfections, the administrative hiccups, the bad days, the frustrations, if I could go back two years I'd do it all over again; I wouldn't trade my imperfect PC experience for a perfect one. You take what you get and you run with it. If Guatemalans have taught me anything, it's that.

And with that, I'm off!

*I have decided to keep Cartas de Lejos up and running, despite my finishing Peace Corps. From this point on it will serve as a personal/travel blog, documenting stories and things from my RPCV life.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Tzibal: The next thing

Tomorrow I will be putting on my traje, perhaps for the last time in Guatemala, and heading up to Tzibal for the certification ceremony.  After five years of hard work and three generations of PC volunteers, Tzibal will be certifying their Escuela Oficial Rural Mixta as a "Healthy School" on part of Peace Corps Guatemala and the Guatemalan Ministry of Education.  The bottle school, the pilas--this certification is a culmination of all of this.  This certification will also be my going-away party, and will mark the end of Peace Corps presence in the community (at least for a few years).  It is in many ways an end, but also a beginning.  The ball is rolling in Tzibal, in more ways than one.

Remember when Operation Groundswell visited Tzibal last year?  OG, an amazing voluntourism nonprofit based in Canada sent eleven equally amazing people out to help with the construction of the bottle school and get to know life in a rural village.  Little did any of us know that the Tzibal community would win over the hearts of these eleven travelers, and vise versa.  The seeds of an idea were planted, and there began the planning process of "La Cancha:" a paved sports field meet covered community meeting center, all in one.

Thanks to the extremely hard work and devotion of a few of these wonderful volunteers (check out group leader Ben's blog on the project here), the Cancha Project has turned from an idea to a plan, and construction is planned to begin in April.  My leaving early has presented a challenge for the project, but nothing a little brainstorming and rehashing of responsibilities can't solve.  This project is going to be incredible, and come hell or high water I'm going to do my darnedest to return for its inauguration.

Please, all you wonderful folks out there, read the project details here, help spread the word, and consider donating to the cause!