"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

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Dear Grandma

Dear Grandma Mary,

Thank you so much for the package! It made my day...and I've been really in need of a pick-me-up this week. I just picked it up today from the post office...haven't opened it yet, but I'm sure it's filled with wonderful things. Mom says that you've been following my blog...it's nice to know that I have loyal readers out there!

I hope all is well in San Antonio...I'll try to send some of this Guatemalan rain your way. Take care, send Cassie my love, and thanks again for your support!


Friday, August 27, 2010

Pan de banano

I had another women's group meeting this morning. Got to tell them the good news that our pila project was approved by my director, and that the next steps can be taken…they seem excited, and at least I know that they'll be patient. If one thing is for sure, Guatemalans are patient people.

Today I had them all bring ingredients to make banana bread, which ended up being a huge hit…I think Rice Krispy Treats were just a little too strange for them. Banana bread is great because all of the ingredients (minus the baking powder which I provided) can easily be acquired out here in the campo, for cheap. I was a bit nervous about making bread over an open-fire (I'm lucky that I have a toaster oven to do my baking), but I followed the "Peace Corps Oven" technique, and it worked surprisingly well. For those of you out there that ever want to bake bread on an open fire (or a stove-top), here's how:

How to make a Peace Corps Oven
1 large metal pot with lid. (It needs to be big enough for a bread pan to fit inside with room to spare)
1 empty tin can, label removed (empty tuna or cat food cans work the best)

Place the pot on your stove-top/fire. Fill the empty tin can ½ with water and place in the center of the pot. Balance your baking pan on top of tin can. Cover the pot with the lid, being sure not to knock your baking pan over. Cook over medium heat. Avoid removing the lid too often to keep the baking heat inside the pot. This oven is best for cakes, breads and pizzas. Cookies do not bake well because there is no top heat.

The women loved the recipe; I demonstrated with the first loaf, and they made the second loaf all on their own. When the first loaf came out of the "oven," they all touched it and said "puro tamale!" I guess I never would have made the connection between the consistency of banana bread and a corn tamale, but I can see where they're coming from. They've all requested that on my next trip to the city I pick them up baking powder and aluminum bread pans so they can start baking the breads themselves. I was relieved that it went over well…poco a poco I feel like I'm earning their trust. It's still very formal, and they won't stop calling me "Seño Ana" even after I've insisted they just call me Ana. But relationships take time here, and there's quite a lot of them, and only one of me. Let alone the language barrier. They have this habit of looking at me and speaking in pure Q'eqchi', none of which I can understand. So I've started responding with full sentences in English, which they really get a kick out of. It is frustrating having to communicate through a translator. I'm getting impatient with myself…I want to learn Q'eqchi' faster! But as always here, I just gotta keep studying and stay patient. Estella (my unofficial translator) and I get along well, though…she's invited me to come to her house this weekend to help her kill and cook her 2 rabbits. Yay. The women also collectively decided that they want to dress me up in traje (typical dress) for the 15th of September (their Independence Day…it's a big, BIG deal here), so that should be fun.

No classes this afternoon, so I'm going to go for a run and settle in early with a book. Gotta be at the market tomorrow by 7 if I wanna beat the rush and get the good cabbage.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Patience is a virtue

I am a patient person. This is something that I've been told all my life by friends, teachers, colleagues, whoever. And I take pride in my ability to entertain myself, spend long periods of time alone, and deal with children and difficult people. But my God. They really know how to test me here. Their 15-minute-long National Anthem is a wonderful example of how Guatemalans love to draw things out. Give a Guatemalan a microphone, we say among volunteers, and be ready for a 30-minute speech about nothing at all. Formalities are so prevalent in the culture here that nobody seems to notice how much time is actually consumed by these niceties. Don't take me wrong, I'm not culture bashing. But being an American, from the land of time-savers and getter-doners, I still find myself amazed on a daily basis at how much time is wasted here with simple formalities. Just thrown on down the toilet.

I'm just getting back from a teacher's meeting at the local school. I was there teaching my segundo class, when the director invited me to sit in on a meeting to plan the Independence Day festivities. Easy enough, right? Plan 3 days of activities, make a schedule, batta bing batta boom. No no no. Silly Hannah. The meeting that was planned for 4pm started at 5pm, with the director welcoming everybody, commenting on the weather, and, 20 minutes later, getting down to business. 7pm, and all we've decided is that there will be a drawing competition one day, and a poetry competition another day. And maybe a beauty pageant. I wanted to scream. I was hungry, tired, and knew that we weren't getting anywhere fast. Then it started to rain. "It's raining too hard for you all to leave anyway so we may as well continue the meeting," said the director. I thought about leaving, but didn't want to offend anybody. At 8pm, she wrapped it up. By then we had kind-of-sort-of decided on a drawing competition (of which I am one of the judges), a singing competition (solo and groups), a poetry competition, and a beauty pageant, with dates and teachers assigned to each. Now, we did what we needed to do. But in my American mind, we could have accomplished that much in about 15 minutes. Or a series of emails. Not a 3-hour long meeting.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

APCD Visit

Today my APCD (my program director) came out for an initial site-visit, to check my house, visit my schools and meet my directors, and discuss any project ideas. Good news; he was very supportive of my women's group pila project. One fly in the ointment, however. When introducing water to a community, the issue of waste water is often overlooked (it didn't even occur to me). The way outdoor pilas function is that the waste water (filled with dish soap, laundry detergent, etc.) simply runs off the bottom into the land below, eventually risking ground water contamination. So to prevent problems, a filtration ditch must be put in place before the pila is installed. The design is simple enough; a ditch is dug and is filled with layers of rock, carbon (charcoal), sand, pebbles, and more rock. The waste water filters through and is clean by the time it reaches the ground. So 40 pilas means 40 filtration ditches, as well. The cost of the carbon, rocks, sand, and manpower will also have to be taken into consideration. It's going to require a bit more time and funding than I had anticipated, but I'm more than willing than taking on the challenge, and I hope these women will stick with me.

I also had the good luck of bumping into the CORP (Culture of Reading Program) director today at the local school (he coordinates the Co-Ed textbook program but also has contacts with the woman who runs CORP.) I mentioned to him that I was interested in starting a reading program in my schools to build critical-thinking skills and creativity, and he said he'd be happy to send me along the CORP application. CORP is a reading program founded by an American school principal who, after traveling to Guatemala and seeing the need for such a program in the schools, left her job and now works here full-time with Co-Ed as a teacher and teacher-trainer. CORP trains primary school teachers in the reading program curriculum, which uses short children's stories along with theater and creative writing to enhance interest in reading. I would just have to come by the storybooks, and the CORP people would come in and do the rest. I still need to talk to the schools' directors to see if they'd support such a program, but my hopes are high.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Bottle School

I took a trip to Baja Verapaz today to attend the opening ceremony for a fellow volunteer's bottle school project. He teamed up with a local school and built an additional 2-classroom building using the "Eco-ladrillo" (Eco-brick) technique. Basically what you do is collect empty soda and water bottles, clean and dry them, and pack them full of cleaned, dried trash (plastic chip bags, plastic bags, etc.). The trash makes the bottles heavy and durable, so they can act as the foundation of the walls of a building (in this case, a school). The building cost is therefore greatly reduced, and it helps to clean up the local area of trash. The idea was created by a returned Peace Corps volunteer, and is quickly spreading across Peace Corps Guatemala. My site-mate currently has a bottle-school project underway in the aldea where I work with the women's group. It's moving along more slowly than planned (still in the bottle-collection phase), so I will most likely be the one responsible for finishing the project after he leaves.

On the way back to site from Baja, we stopped off at Casa D'Acuna, a swanky hotel/restaurant in Coban. And for a mere 20 quetzals (more money than I normally spend on food for two days), I had the best chocolate cheesecake I've ever tasted. It was so good, in fact, that I almost didn't feel guilty about spending all that money.

At the opening ceremony I also met a women selling jewelry that her women's group makes out of recycled trash. They use plastic bags, bottles, and pop tabs to make earrings, bracelets, and necklaces, which they sell and make a pretty profit. I bought a pair of bar-code earrings, and talked to the woman about the possibility of her coming out and teaching my women's group how to make the jewelry. I think it would be a really great way to fundraise for our pila project.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Food revelations/the housing hunt

Since I live on the second floor of a building, I often go down to the bottom of my front stairs to beat the heat, hang out, drink my morning coffee, or chat with Olga the store owner. Today I bought a big bag of ejote (green beans) at the market, so I took them down to my stoop to sort and snap the ends off of them. It must have something to do with the fact that I was preparing a common local food, because almost immediately local women started coming over to me (a rarity, to say the least). And not just to say the customary "good afternoon, see you soon," but to hang out and to chat with me. I couldn't have been out there for 5 minutes and suddenly I had two indigenous friends, average age of 90, speaking Q'eqchi' at me. Despite the language barrier, the women sat down next to me and started helping me with my bean prep…they were a lot better at snapping the ends off than I am. They also showed me how to remove the beans from the shell to eat them that way. I just smiled and nodded, unable to say anything to them. They gestured upstairs to my house and asked me something in Q'eqchi', and I was able to say "Ehe, ochoch" ("Yes, home") in response. That was the extent of our conversation. They left and other women stopped by…apparently a Gringa girl with a bowl full of green beans is a lot more welcoming than a Gringa just sitting alone on her stoop. Who knows. Another volunteer told me that a great way to get "in" with the local women is to watch the popular soap operas and bring them up in casual conversation. I can't stand the soap operas here. So maybe my ticket in is food. I will definitely make a point of doing more food preparation out front…maybe tomorrow I'll peel potatoes. Or shell peanuts. See if today was a fluke, or if I'm really on to something.

On the topic of food, this week I've made a point at being more creative with the local food…those first few weeks I was basically living on beans, eggs, bananas, mosh (oatmeal), and powered milk. They are, after all, super cheap and very available at my market. But I got bored. So this week I made my own peanut-butter (I had to shell and roast 2 lbs of peanuts…took me 3 hours), and today I made a cold green-bean potato salad dressed with lemon juice and olive oil (green beans were especially cheap at the market) and a quart of homemade chunky cinnamon applesauce (apples were also cheap today, but grainy…made for great applesauce, though!). Tomorrow I'm going to make an attempt at homemade pasta sauce…we'll see how that goes.

After the market this morning, I headed out to my Wednesday school to observe and teach. The school is newer, so there is only one class of about 25 students, and 2 teachers (excluding me). It's more rural, so a lot of the students have already lost a lot of their Spanish, and the teacher often has to translate more complicated directions into Q'eqchi' for me. But the students are great, and every single week they give me a gift…last week it was a huge bag of bananas, the week before it was plantains. This week I got a stack of freshly-made tayuyos (tortillas stuffed with spicy black beans…one of my favorites). I don't think they know it, but their gifts always make my day. They're so meaningful because they're from their homes…bananas are hard to find in the market since everybody has their own banana trees. I, however, am not so lucky. So when I get a big bag from a students' mother, it's the best.

I've been starting to ask around town about finding another house to rent…I like the place I'm at now, but I have my heart set on finding a place with a bit more land, where I can have a garden and a chicken or two. So today on my way back from the school I stopped at a roadside tienda (store) to ask the owner. I told the woman that I was looking for a place to rent for 2 years. Immediately she called in her mother and daughter to discuss my possibilities. She then told me that as long as I already had my own bed, I could move in with them. She thought that I didn't have a place to stay at all, and that I was looking for somewhere to stay immediately. Just like that she would have taken me into her own house. I just can't imagine that turn of events happening in the States. After I explained that I had housing until October, she had her daughter walk me into town to meet another women who had a spare bedroom in her house. She, as well, immediately welcomed me in and said I could live there. While I value my privacy and space, it's somewhat touching to me that these families would so readily open their doors to a complete stranger. I'm going to keep on looking, though…my Guatemalan dream house is out there somewhere, chickens and all.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Happy Friday

Heard from the director of the NGO from Wednesday; apparently our graduation speeches were a huge hit. I'm being asked to speak at two more ceremonies in the next few months. Who knew…

Had my first real women's group meeting this morning, and after the town-hall meeting fiasco last week, I was a bit hesitant going up there today. But it turned out to be really productive. We all met at the church at 9 (aka 9:30)…about 25 women showed up! I didn't bring much of a plan because I wanted to keep it pretty unstructured. After about 20 minutes of initial awkwardness (them speaking to one another in Q'eqchi', me helplessly trying to figure out what was going on), they started grilling me: what is the U.S. like, do I have a husband, do I have children, why in the world don't I have a husband or children, what do I think about Guatemala, if I will marry a Guatemalan, etc. They also loved my caites, these little rubber jelly-sandals that all the women here wear (I bought a pair at the market…they've proven to hold up well on the rocky roads). I felt like I was making some progress with the group; earning their trust. And sure enough, after a little chatting, they decided to get down to business. They said they'd been discussing possible projects for the group, and decided that what they wanted most were pilas, one for each of the women in the group. I was baffled…I thought everybody here had a pila. A pila is basically a three-compartment water cistern/utility sink. The water is collected in the middle (about 10 gallons) and then the two side compartments are used for washing dishes and clothes, by scooping the water out of the middle with a comal, or a dipping bowl. Without pilas, the women explained, all washing has to be done with "piedra y tabla". I was having trouble understanding what they meant, so they decided to take me to one of their houses to show me. With no running water, they have to collect rain water in these big plastic vats, and when they need to wash clothes, they use a stone and what looks like a big wooden door that's been laid flat across a horse. Using the door (tabla) as the surface, they pour water and soap over the clothes, using a stone (piedra) as a scrubber against the wood. I was amazed. As a joke they handed me some clothes to wash, so I went along with it and went to work on a shirt. And oh did they get a kick out of watching me struggle. The home visit turned into 25 Q'eqchi'-speaking Guatemalan women teaching me the proper way to wash a shirt using a door, a stone, and rainwater. I got it down, though.

I told them I would help them with their project, but made sure to explain that we would have to earn the money to buy the pilas together, and that it might take a while. I'm going to look into resources for getting some funds for the pilas. Because really, they're not asking for much.

They also decided that next week they'd also teach me how to make tortillas, since a girl who can't wash a shirt surely can't make a good tortilla (which I can't). And I'm going to show them how to make rice-crispy treats. I hope I can keep this group going, it could be a really good thing. After just one morning in their village I feel more accepted by these women than anybody here in Campur. One of the women even invited me to her son's birthday party tomorrow. That's the first invite I've gotten since getting to site.

Tomorrow I'm heading out to Coban for my welcome party. The rest of the volunteers in Alta/Baja Verapaz are throwing us newbies a party in San Cristobal. I'm excited to meet the rest of the volunteers from this area and have a night to relax and speak in English for a while. It'll also be really nice to have a beer or two since it's impossible for me to drink in-site--if I was seen buying alcohol, which I would be if I bought any, I could ruin my reputation here…women don't drink in this culture, and the Evangelicals don't, either. It's really hasn't been a problem, but I do miss the freedom of having a glass of wine with dinner. Anyways, it'll be nice to get away this weekend, get some good Coban grub, and meet some fellow PCV's.

Tonight, however, it'll just be me, my hammock, a big bowl of stove-top popcorn, and a good book.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Pomp and Circumstance

Today my volunteer friend Sabiha came out to Campur with the director of an NGO she works with. He told her that they were going to have a meeting with the Campur branch, and that I was formally invited, being the volunteer here. Happy to have something to fill my schedule with, I met with them early this morning at the Catholic church, where our "meeting" would take place. He took us on a tour of the NGO, which is a computer-literacy program that certifies students in computer skills like Microsoft Office and typing. He also introduced us to several teachers and the director of the program. After the tour he led us to the church, where the mass was beginning. On our way in, he handed us the "program." Turns out that the mass was just the beginning of the graduation ceremony for the '09-10 computer training class. And Sabiha and I, believe it or not, were masters of ceremony. Not only were we listed on the program as speakers, but we were also handing out diplomas. So there we sat, up on the stage, with the Priest, the director of the NGO, and the Superintendent of the schools. I gave my speech (which I had scribbled down on scrap paper during the hour-long mass…thank God…literally), and then struggled through my batch of diplomas. By the time the ceremony was coming to a close, it was 1 o'clock…and then they brought out the food. I had to leave…I had a charla to give at one of my schools at 2, and I refuse to be late (and I was ready to get outta there). So I said my apologies to the director and left. It's a big, BIG disrespect to turn down food here. But I really didn't have much of a choice…it's not like I could take the turkey soup to go. The steaming hot turkey soup, mind you, that they were serving to a sweating crowd of people inside a church that was about 120 degrees. And hey, if they're going to give me 5 minutes warning of my premier as the Gringa-guest-of-honor at their ceremony, then I'm going to skip out on lunch. Sometimes it's just impossible to be culturally sensitive ALL of the time. It's impossible to please everyone.

On a side note, I heard the Guatemalan national anthem for the first time at the ceremony today. It is the longest national anthem ever. Seriously it's at least 10 minutes long, at least.

Dear Liz

Happy Birthday, Lizzy!

You know at birthday parties here they sing the birthday song in English? It's really funny. Appy beerthday to you, appy beerthday to you…

Love you!

Monday, August 9, 2010

Dear Mike

Dear Mike,

I'm bored. So so bored. Classes weren't in session last week due to exams, and they won't be back in session until Wednesday. So I haven't had anything to do. Nothing. And I don't have any friends. So nobody to talk to. Nobody. Just me, myself, and I. I read the Joy of Cooking. I borrowed it from my sitemate. You know how many pages that thing is? Like 850. I read it…cover to cover. Even the recipes for brain.
I just keep telling myself that I'm lucky to have all this time on my hands. Like you said, right? At least I don't have any term papers to write..
I miss writing term papers.
I miss you.


Saturday, August 7, 2010


I've had some of you ask about sending me mail; I have a P.O. box now near my site, so now you can send mail directly to me:

Hannah Gdalman
Cuerpo de Paz
Apartado Postal 66
Coban, Alta Verapaz 16001
Guatemala, Centro America

Send me letters!!!

And for those of you who wanna send me packages (please don't feel obligated), here is a short list of things I would love from the States..just no FedEx/DHL/UPS please, they'll charge me a ton in taxes when I claim it.

Hannah's Wishlist (in no particular order):

1. Almond butter!
2. DVD's (anything and everything…crappy American TV shows will be appreciated…as will Yoga DVD's, movies, etc.)
3. Dark Chocolate Peanut M&M's
4. Cliff Bars/Luna Bars
5. Trader Joe's Honey Sesame Almonds
6. Used Books/Magazines
7. Good inky pens

And if you really wanna be awesome, I can always use prizes for my students: pencils, pens, notebooks, little notepads, index cards, books/magazines in Spanish, easy books/magazines in English.


Friday, August 6, 2010

Dear Mike

Dear Mike,

Happy Birthday!


Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Another Wednesday

Market day again. I'm beginning to dread market days. I can't avoid them, since it's the only chance I get to buy my food for the week. And it's a good time to run into people in the community. But it's overwhelming, to say the least. The "Gringa," and "Cancha" ("blondey", "whitey") comments increase exponentially on Market Days since so many people from neighboring communities come in to buy and sell things. On a normal day, I can walk down my street and most people know who I am and what I'm doing here…probably also my name, where I live, my favorite color… But on market days I'm not always recognized. And therefore I create a bit of a scene.

So I've made it a habit of trying to buy all of my essentials quickly, and then get out. One plus of market day: street food vendors. On the way home I always stop and lunch on my favorite: Tayuyos and Empanadas de banano…tortillas stuffed with spicy black beans, fresh off the griddle, and banana-bread-balls, deep-fried, coated in sugar (kinda like banana donuts). Mm.

This afternoon I hiked up to Tzibol for my first women's group meeting. I got there about 5 before 1pm, the time our meeting was supposed to start. But this is Guatemala. I got to the church to find it locked up, nobody in sight. Luckily I managed to track down one of the few women who can speak Spanish, and who magically had the key to the church. She let me in, and then left, telling me that she'd be right back with everybody. Twenty minutes later, she was back, telling me we're meeting everybody at the school, instead. So we walk to the school. Which was locked. She left again, and returned with a few teachers (many of whom aren't women, either). They decide that it would be best to go back to the church to have the meeting. So we go back, sit down, and in about 20 minutes all but few of the adults from the town have convened, town-meeting style in the church. The leader of the cocode (basically the representative of the village) showed up too, got up and formally introduces me, explains my role, and then gives me the floor. Luckily one of the female teachers from the school speaks both Spanish and Q'eqchi' fluently, and translated for me. Apparently the women were under the impression that I was there to give them classes and training on certain topics, and were skeptical about how much time it would take, what would be expected of them, etc. When I tried to explain that it was really up to them what we did with our time, that I just wanted to hang out basically, maybe share some recipes, they seemed a lot more at ease. We managed to nail down a time for our women's group meetings (since apparently we hadn't done that yet), and that was that. But then the cocode got down to real business. Apparently he decided that since the whole town was convened, anyways, he might as well address some issues. In Q'eqchi'. For 2 hours. During which it rained. On my clothes, which have been now hanging out on the line for 3 days.

But home at last, in dry clothes. Tonight's menu: Bean Chili and Cornbread muffins. Thank GOD for my pressure cooker, or I would never eat. I never realized how much of a luxury it was to open a can of beans, a can of tomatoes, and throw it all in a pot. I'm not complaining…cooking has been a great thing…it's not like I don't have the time, it just takes a lot more preparation and foresight to get dinner on the table.