"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

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Poco a poco

Life is moving along here. My schedule is slowly but surely picking up…I'm teaching/observing every afternoon, and I'm going to be teaching English at 2 of my schools, twice a week. The director of the local institute also asked me to help put together the library; the previous volunteer managed to get a bunch of books donated and dropped off, which are now just sitting in piles in a locked room. So I'll be the librarian a few mornings a week. I've started running most mornings, too, which has been really nice. My knee is holding up well, despite the rough terrain.

Today I taught my very first charla ("talk") all by myself…I've been given Berta's Primero class due to scheduling problems (honestly I think she lied about her sudden schedule change so I'd have no choice but to take her class…I only let it happen because I'm desperate for something to do). It still throws me for a loop the way students are trained to learn here. I wanted to get to know the class better, so I brought them all an index card, and asked them to list some basic information: their names, gender, age, number of people in their family (living with them), favorite hobby, future plans, and a question for me. I even drew an example index card on the board, listing each piece of information I wanted. It took these kids 20 of the 35 minutes in our class period to finish what I planned would take less than 5. And it wasn't that they weren't on task. It just took them forever to consider each question and come up with the answer. It was frustrating, because at first I thought it was my fault, that I had written something in bad Spanish or hadn't explained it properly. But it wasn't that. They are fed everything by their teachers; learning is by rote, they are told what to write down in their notebooks word for word. So when I come in and ask them to write their own answers, it's difficult. They can do it (they all eventually turned in completed cards), it just takes them a lot more to do it. Definitely something I'll be keeping in mind when planning my lessons.

Teacher workshop tomorrow. My site mate invited me to attend the workshop he'd planned if I'd agree to do a few dinamicas with the teachers to keep the energy up (it's like a 6 hour workshop). He's also giving me some time in the schedule to give a short talk about starting a local women's group (basically I'm going to beg for friends haha). Can't believe it's already the end of the week…it's Feria in Coban this weekend so I'll probably spend the day there on Saturday. Then Sunday it's soccer with the teachers. Next week there's no class due to exams, so I'll have a week to twiddle my thumbs. I'll use the time to work on my Q'eqchi'.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Dear Mike

Dear Mike,

Good day today. Enjoying the simple things. Took the trip into Coban today to go shopping with Sabiha and Jenia. It's a long trip. Especially for groceries. And internet. On the ride home, though, I saw the most beautiful rainbow I've ever seen. It looked fake, to be honest. A huge arch, touching the ground on both sides, vidid colors…amazing. I came home and, thanks to my shopping trip, made myself a peanut-butter and jelly sandwich, on wheat sandwich bread, cut down the middle diagonally. It was the best pbj I've had in a long, long time. The little things, you know? Even if it's just for peanut-butter, yogurt, and Facebook, I'll keep making that trip. It'll get easier.

Enjoy the studio.

Miss you.

One week down

One week down…I survived. Read a whole book, got my house together, and visited all my schools. I'm slowly learning the lay of the land…no friends yet, though. I've been hanging around Olga's shop downstairs a lot…she's fun to talk to. Otherwise, poco a poco. I'm just gonna have to be patient. And get used to some quality Hannah time.

This afternoon I went to observe again at the main institute in my aldea, and upon walking through the gates, saw 2 dozen or so students laying, covered in fake blood, on the basketball court, while other groups of students acted as rescue paramedics, issuing toilet-paper bandages and water-bottle IV drips. The rest of the student body huddled on the sidelines, uttering sobs of anguish. This was an earthquake drill. Where I come from, fire drills happened a handful of times a year, the alarm would sound, we would line up, file out, wait 10 minutes, return to class and resume the lesson. Not here. The earthquake drill was pre-planned for 3:05 pm, and the students had ample time to prepare costumes, fake blood…they even somehow had real firemen's vests and stretchers. The drill then lasted an entire hour, while the mourners mourned and the victims bled, and the paramedics assessed the damage. After an hour of this, the director of the school gathered everybody together and spoke for 20 minutes about how, being on a faultline, a major earthquake is always a risk. And that, shockingly enough, it wouldn't really happen like this drill. I guess that's one way to make kids pay attention to emergency drills.

After the drill, I went to observe Profe. Ronald's Tercero class. This was the third class I'd observed at this particular school, and so far I'm incredibly impressed. Not only have the teachers implemented our Youth Development curriculum into their schedule as a class period, but the teachers are teaching the curriculum themselves, without help from a volunteer. In Ronald's class today he taught a lesson on ways to say no to sexual pressure. He even incorporated me into the lesson, asking me to act as a judge for an activity they did. It was really incredibly inspiring to see a Guatemalan teacher take the reigns of the lesson and encourage an open dialogue about something as taboo as premarital sex, sexual pressure, gender roles, etc. It also made me start to worry about my role here. I'm second generation, so I'm supposed to be working more with the teachers and parents. But at this particular school, the teachers are already teaching our material, and doing so well, and parents, well, that will be a challenge. I guess I just need to take it one step at a time. I know my role will develop with time, and that the community needs to warm up to me first. But at the same time I'm anxious to get started and find some kind of purpose for being here. Otherwise I'm just on a really strange vacation.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010


Wednesday. What a day. Three days in site. Just like I suspected, days go by really slowly here. I like the pace of life here, though. It's relatively relaxed, and people are really social. My days start early with the sun, and end early. Wednesday is market day here, and so I walked down to get some much needed housewares and food. It's amazing how the aldea transforms on market day. There's all sorts of vendors and food carts all along the main road, and the market building itself is huge, and stocked with all sorts of things. I tried to chat with each of the vendors, although some were more willing to talk than others. The women I bought kitchen towels from, Erlinda, was particularly friendly, as was the woman selling bananas. With adults here, I get one of two reactions: recognition and friendliness (Oh! You're the new Kelsey! Where are you from?) or skepticism/confusion.

Example: I wanted to buy tortillas last night for my dinner of protemás (it's Guatemalan dehydrated tofu they sell everywhere…it's actually pretty good if you season the hell out of it) so I went across the road to a little vendor I thought might be able to tell me where to go. I walked in, and the owner women shot me this look of "What the hell are you doing here." I asked her if she sold tortillas or knew where I might find some. She said no, and went back to her conversation. As I turned to leave, her daughter asked me if I wanted the tortillas right then, and if I played soccer. I told her yes, to both things, and she kindly explained that 6 o clock is much to early for tortillas…they don't start torteando until closer to dinnertime (7 o clock). Duh. Then she invited me to play soccer with them on Sundays, and told her mom to go make me some tortillas. I told her she didn't have to, but the deal was done. Fifteen minutes later, 2 quetzals worth of fresh tortillas were dropped off at my door by the women's son.

It's the elders of this aldea that will be the hardest for me to warm up to. They just seem so skeptical. Could have to do with how weird I look to them, that I look German and Germans stole all of their land years ago and still own it all, or that they just don't trust me yet. Poco a poco. The kids, however, seem to love me. Enough to follow me around. And hang outside my apartment door. And yell things at me in Qeqchi then bust out laughing when I tell them I don't understand. Gotta love being the token foreigner in a town this small.

Went to my third school this afternoon, to observe the social studies class (they've incorporated the Peace Corps curriculum into their social studies). I'd called the director beforehand to let them know; so when I arrived, I was surprised to find out that I, in fact, was teaching the class! There must have been some sort of miscommunication on the phone earlier (phone Spanish is still hard for me…you can't read the person when you can't see them), because the teacher handed me the book and announced to the class that I was starting today! So there I was, sweaty from my 30 minute hike to the school, no books, no notes, no plans, and an hour to kill. So I pulled some ice-breakers out of my behind, and made them do an activity where they had to describe typical local dishes. It wasn't as horrible as it could have been, but it definitely was not the first impression I would have liked to make. Oh well. Then, on my walk back home, a pig chased me. I mean, I guess I shouldn't have run from a pig (can they bite?) but it came out of nowhere, and started trotting towards me, and I didn't know what to do. It ran behind me until I jumped up onto a log out of reach, while a group of kids across the road laughed their heads off at the crazy gringo on the log, running from a pig. Uy. What a Wednesday. No wonder I sleep so well here.

Monday, July 19, 2010

"Yo manejo, Dios me guia"

The driver of the Campur line today had that quote hanging on his rearview mirror, over a crucifix. "I drive, God guides me." Honestly, I can't think of anything more appropriate to be hanging from a Guatemalan micro driver's rearview mirror. Often on Chicken buses I see people cross themselves when they get on, and again when they get off at their destination. My host mother is a big advocate of this practice. I don't blame them. I don't think I've taken a road trip here in country during which I didn't feel close to death at least once. Road rules don't exist here. Passing blindly is commonplace, and chuchos act as orange cones that one is expected to dodge around obstacle-course style. Those yellow lane lines? Merely decoration, it seems. The fact that I'm alive does say something. While to me Guatemalans are the worst drivers in the entire world, they do somehow create order out of chaos. The majority continue to make it to their destinations alive. But man, "yo manejo, Dios me guia" pretty much says it all.

At the end of the tearful goodbyes with my host family this morning, I told my host mom that I would call her when I arrived in Campur. She responded, naturally, "Only if God wills it." Not "Okay, have a safe trip." But instead, "if you die en route and don't call me, it'll be because God willed it. Bye!" I drive, God guides me…can't put it much better than that.

But here I am, in one piece, safe and sound in my site. It was indeed an exhausting journey. The private shuttle bus driver was an hour late, and some hungover guy from Orange County was puking out the back window. Ugh. I understand the precautions that we have to take after the bus station bomb scare a few weeks ago, but it seems so ridiculous to me to pay more than double what the Monja Blanca coach bus would have cost to ride in a crappy, cramped, vomit-scented tourist shuttle.

Nevertheless, I'm here, and ready to start. This week I'm going to focus on getting my house together and visit each of my schools. Next week I'll hope to meet with my directors and nail down some kind of plan. Until market day on Wednesday, I have no food. It looks like I'll be eating at Dona Ines' comedor this week.

Goodnight all!

Friday, July 16, 2010

I'm official!

Dear Mom and Dad,

I'm official! Today marks the end of an incredibly long and difficult application and training process. It's pretty surreal, actually. 18 months ago I submitted my Peace Corps application online. And today I stood in front of the U.S. Ambassador, raised my right hand, and took my oath. Today I start my service. Today the 2 year clock started ticking. There's just no way I'm not giving this my all. I owe it to myself.

It was a beautiful ceremony…my host mother came to watch, all dressed up in her Sunday best. I got a ton of compliments on my new dress, which I think made her really happy. I'm going back to the house on Sunday morning before I leave to say my final goodbyes, so no need for tearful farewells today.

In Antigua at the moment, celebrating our emancipation from training and our transition into real volunteer-dom. For the first time since getting here, I feel like a tourist…staying in a hostel, eating overpriced food…I guess I better enjoy it while it lasts, yeh? On Sunday morning I'm off to my site for good, to settle in, start working, and hope for the best. No doubt it will be a challenging first few weeks. Many volunteers I've met say the first 3 months can be hell. But once you get past that hump, it's uphill from there. So here I go..


Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Eve of Swear-in

Tomorrow is the big day. Life has been full of despedidas (good-bye parties), last minute paperwork, and many emotions. My host mother took me to Antigua today to pick up the dress she had picked out and bought for me to wear at the ceremony tomorrow. It's all too much.
I remember when I got here, how slowly time passed, and now it seems like it's flying. But when I look back on training, I've changed bastante.

In the last 3 months I've...

moved up 2 levels in Spanish

eaten chicken and beef (first time in over 11 years!)

lost 5 lbs

grown out my bangs

gotten a farmers' tan

made 4 really great friends, and many others

gotten the most sleep per night since summer vacation circa 7th grade

gotten used to riding on chicken buses

learned to tortear

been inspired by many wonderful people, volunteers, trainees, Guatemalans, family and friends.

...I want to thank you all back home for your continuing support through my training. I'm going to need it in these next few months. I love and miss you all.


Saturday, July 10, 2010

Back to Bartolo

Just got back from my 4-day site visit…not as exhausted from the travel as expected. It's about 7 hours by bus between my site and my training town. It could be worse. And I won't really need to come bck here that often once I swear in next week (official swear-in countdown: 6 days).

Overall, it was a good site visit, although short. I feel like it was just a tiny taste of what my life will be like for the next 24 months. A few of the Alta Verapaz volunteers who I met at the 4th of July party told me that Alta is like a whole different country. I didn't really take that seriously until now. My journal entry from last night:

I'm at my site now, without power for the 4th night in a row. It's really hot here…like tropical hot. And it rains every day, for at least an hour or so. The rain is welcome, though, in this heat. The people have been really kind to me so far…I'm the third Peace Corps volunteer to be placed here, so they're more or less used to having a gringo roaming around the aldea...the kids especially are super curious, and aren't afraid to ask me all sorts of questions. Today was the first day that I didn't really have anything planned…I busied myself unpacking and cleaning my new place (which is nice, especially by local living standards). This afternoon a few women teachers I met the other night stopped by to ask me to play soccer with them. I went (they honestly could have asked me to go slaughter turkeys with them and I would have gone…I need all the invitations and all the friends I can get at this point) and we played a pick-up game in the rain. It was actually pretty fun. They speak in Kekchi about half of the time, and the other half in Spanish (sometimes they'll switch to Kekchi and talk about me...although there's no way to know yet).
Tonight was my first night alone in the apartment since my roomates went home for the weekend. Despite the rain and a lack of appetite, I went back to Dona Ines' comedor for some beans-n-eggs. I just really want to connect to a family here, and they seem really friendly. When I walked in they all said "Your first night alone! Come in! Eat!" They seem like really caring people...they really want me to learn Kekchi, and quickly. I'm going to do my best, but it's pretty daunting.

There's a moth the size of a bird on my wall. Definitely bigger than any moth I've ever seen. I'm going to ignore it and go to sleep...5:30 micro to catch in the a.m.!

Overall, I think I got a good feel of the community and my site. I'm going to try to be patient and open-minded in these few few months, because I know that it will take time to integrate and really get into my role as volunteer. It's particularly hard because it's like they all already know me. I'm the gringa volunteer named Hannah who lives in Kelsey's old apartment. And I'm hard to miss. But they are all new to me, they all dress the same, talk the same, look the same (to my gringo eyes, at least) and names are hard to remember. I just hope I don't make a fool of myself or piss anybody off in my first few weeks. That would be a disaster in a community that size.

It's weird to be back in my training town...it has a different feel now that I know my home is somewhere else now. The kids jumped all over me when I got back today. I'll feel bad leaving them next week. It's hard to explain to a 3-year-old why his "aunt" is leaving yet again.

Off to buy pastries and walk around town...gotta take advantage of good tienda pastries since there won't be any of that where I'm heading!

Monday, July 5, 2010

Dear Mike

Dear Mike,

Just tried your cell, you must be busy. Hope you had a great 4th of July, sorry to hear that oaoa didn't get to play. How'd the t-shirts turn out?

Tomorrow I'm off to Alta Verapaz...I'm stressing as usual. It's funny, my "DailyOm" email today was entitled "Underneath the Noise: Hearing the Whisper." It talked about how underneath all the anxious chatter of our daily worries/anxieties, there's a whisper that tells us that everything will be okay, and that if we listen hard enough, we can find reassurance in it. I'm so caught up in my nerves (you know how I get), but if I just step back and realize that it will all be okay, maybe I'll prevent myself from totally losing it. We'll see. Right now I just need to focus on getting all my stuff to my site, learning my way around, and getting as much information as possible from Kelsey before she leaves for the States on Thursday. If I can just focus on these immediate things, then I think I'll get through this in one piece. When I start to look at the bigger picture of beginning my service and everything that goes with it, that's when I really start panicking.

Hope you have a good week...don't work too hard. I'll get in touch with you as soon as I get back to San Bartolome (or before if I can). I miss you a lot...wish you were here to help me through this.


Sunday, July 4, 2010

Happy 4th of July!

Yesterday was the all-volunteer 4th of July party at the training center in Santa Lucia. It was really great to be able to meet all the current volunteers, especially those I'll be living near in Alta Verapaz. There was live music, grilled food…all the typical American 4th-of-July fare. But I still can't help but miss home.

Today I've been busy packing up my things for Tuesday…I hate packing, but luckily this will be my last major move before my close-of-service in 2 years. I was really nervous about getting all of my stuff up north safely on the Chicken Buses (I've heard horror stories of volunteers getting all their luggage stolen off the tops of the buses), but because of the bus-station bomb scare last week, I'll be taking a private shuttle up to my site from Antigua. I'm going with my host family to the capitol this afternoon to celebrate my host sister Flor's 27th birthday. I hope to get a good family picture of all of us to give them as a going-away gift.

Tomorrow is Counterpart Day, when I'll meet my Guatemalan counterpart who I'll be working with for the length of my service. He'll also be the one who helps me move all my stuff tomorrow up to site. I'm quite anxious about finally getting to see my site and my new home...I really have no idea what to expect. Haven't slept well in days; I'm just so worked up about packing all of my stuff, moving to a whole different part of the country, starting my work...it's a lot to handle. I just gotta get myself through these next two weeks. One day at a time.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Está volando el tiempo

Dear Mike,

Time is flying.

My training group and I did our final teacher workshop at the Instituto this afternoon. Tomorrow is the annual 4th of July party, which Peace Corps Guatemala throws at the training center in Santa Lucia. Apparently it is THE social event of the year for the volunteers here. I'm particularly excited since I'll get to meet the volunteer I'll be replacing in Campur; I hope to get a lot of information from her and my future site-mate.

I just can't believe it's already the 4th of July. As slow as training seemed at times; it's now the Eve of our site-visits and I can't seem to figure out where time has gone. Two weeks from today I'll be sworn-in as a volunteer. And then I'm off to Alta Verapaz.

I've been a nervous wreck all week and I'm pretty sure it's in anticipation for Tuesday...I'm going to see for the first time my future home and place of work for the next two years. I have no idea what it's going to be like, what to expect...quite emotionally-charging, to say the least. I haven't been sleeping well lately, which is why this sinus infection is sticking around so long. Tonight I'm going to try to get myself together, meditate a bit, pop a Dramamine, and get a good night's sleep before tomorrow. Because next week is going to be a really big week.

Something that also hasn't hit me until recently is the fact that very soon I'll be leaving my host family. This morning at breakfast my host mother told me that it will be particularly hard to see me go, especially so far away, since I'm one of the few volunteers that she's had whom she feels particularly close to. She said that it's always hard for Mario Rodrigo (the three-year-old) to see volunteers leave, and I have noticed lately that he's been particularly clingy. It surprised me to hear her express these things, partly because Guatemalans aren't necessarily the most direct of communicators, and partly because I just never really considered that I would become attached to a family in three short months. But we have exchanged a lot of good conversations, and I have gotten used to having kids running around, as exhausting it can be at times. She also gave me a shot of anti-nausea medicine in my bum that one time, too. My own mother hasn't even done that.

The more I think about it, I am approaching a huge transition...new place, new people, new language...and most of all, I'll be alone this time around. Just like I did 10 weeks ago in the States, I'm once again about to leave behind a home, a family, friends, and pack my bags and take off. It definitely won't be as hard as the first time, but it's not going to be easy. But I'll keep it together, and just take things one day at a time.

I miss you, and I'll talk to you soon. Have a great show on the 4th; I wish I could be there...say hi to the guys for me.

Also, my host sister told me today that you look just like one of the Guatemalan soap-opera stars she watches on TV everyday. You, of course, look nothing like him, except for the beard. Beards are rare here. But I thought I'd let you know that you have a Guatemalan twin in show-business.


Thursday, July 1, 2010

Drumroll, please

Just got my site assignment. I don't know why I was so nervous. I tossed and turned all night.

Here's the word: they're sending me to an aldea (which I will not name for security reasons) of San Pedro Carchá in Alta Verapaz. I'll be a second generation volunteer, which means that I'm replacing a volunteer who's finishing her two years now, Kelsey. I'll be going up there next week and meeting her and my counterparts, seeing the schools I'll be working at, and hopefully getting a feel for where I'll be living and working for the next two years. The first three months of my service I'll be living in an apartment with a few other local teachers, and then I'll have the choice of looking for other living arrangements or staying there. I'll be working at three different schools, one larger one with 181 students and 11 teachers, one with 91 students and 3 teachers, and a new school of 27 students and 3 teachers. According to the packet of information that Gonzalo gave me with my assignment, my site is a small rural aldea in the larger municipality of San Pedro Carchá. It's population is totally indigenous, of the ethnic group Kekchi, which is also the predominant spoken language (although they also speak Spanish…good news for me). It's inhabitants mostly work in agriculture, growing corn, coffee, cardamon, and beans.

That's basically all information I have thus far…it will be really exciting to go out there next Tuesday and see what it's like. I've heard through a few other volunteers that it's absolutely beautiful up there; it's super-hot (which I'm happy about) and "tranquilo" (calm). Since I'll be so far north (from what I've heard it's about 6-8 hours from where I'm living now near the training center) I'll be far away from most of my friends in my training class (who are mostly in the West); but visits are always possible, and I'll have a few volunteers close by who are working on other projects, who I have yet to meet.

It's pretty surreal…now I have my site, but I have very little idea of what it all means until I go up there and see for myself. Gonzalo told us this morning before handing out our sites that it is part of our job to develop our sites…in other words, our sites, and our volunteer experience, are what we make of them. I'm anxious to meet Kelsey and get some "insider" information about the aldea.
Vamos a ver...

[Dad, if you read this...you won't find my aldea on the Guatemala map...but San Pedro Carchá is to the East of Cobán...you can see a map here.]