"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

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Sa il ch’oolejil ch’oq awe sa’ ralankil! (Merry Christmas!)

'Tis the holiday season in the village of Campur.  All week long Christmas pigs were being slaughtered, fireworks tested, women and men gift vendors knocking on my door hawking traditional dress, radios, plastic children's toys, and Avon.  Those who have electricity have twinkle lights hanging, some even have a tree.

I'll admit it; I can be a bit of a Grinch back home when it comes to Christmas.  I just feel like it's become such a poisoned holiday, such a circus, that I find myself waiting impatiently for the day to come so it can be over and we can all resume our lives, free of gems like "Santa Baby."  Don't get me wrong, I do love my family's traditions--Chinese food and midnight church on the 24th, gifts at midnight, a relaxed lasagna lunch with the whole family on the 25th.  And no matter where in the world I am, I usually end up mimicking these very traditions--I enjoyed a lovely Chinese food dinner with some PCV friends in the city, and am planning a post-New Years lasagna feast for the local family who was kind and generous enough to share their Christmas Eve with me.  

On Wednesday I took Dilan and his three-year old cousin Cristien to the market to see Santa.  It was horribly crowded but we managed to make our way towards the front of the crowd.  And there danced Santa, inside the pharmacy, in all his cheesy red-suited glory.  Dilan and Cristien were pretty unfazed by the whole thing and seemed more interested in the ice cream cones I had bought them than Guatemalan pharmacy Santa.  I've always wondered how and if Santa Claus works his way into places such as rural Guatemala.  Dilan helped me solve this mystery.  He asked me that day if Santa had ever visited me.  I told him that yes, when I was a little girl, Santa would come and leave my sister and I presents.  He seemed excited about this.  "Santa's never come to our house but my mom says that's because he lives too far away.  But once the Catholic nuns brought in Santa and he walked around giving all the kids bags of candy."  So there's my answer.  Santa exists to Guatemalan kids, although in a more far-off way.  Rural Guatemala is a bit too far away for Santa and his sleigh, and there are no chimneys for him to magically shimmy down.  Dilan will still receive a Christmas present or two--his mother got him some new clothes for when he starts school in January, and I got him and his brothers some new school supplies (thanks to some great care packages from people back home!)  But that's not what Christmas is about here.  It's not about a stupid fat white man in a red suit or iPhone 5's.  It's about family, good food, and, of course, fireworks.

For the 23rd Zurma, an eight-year old neighbor girl who comes over almost daily to do workout videos with me, invited me to come see her perform in the Chrismas pageant at the local church.  So I went to the church where I sat through a four-hour long Christmas service led mostly by the children of the congregation.  It was actually pretty entertaining, and I got a Christmas tamale out of the deal (although not until 11:30pm when the service ended).  During the closing prayer, which I noticed  Pastor Isabel did in Spanish, she asked everybody present to pray for me and my family far away in the United States.  All around me I heard murmured Q'eqchi' blessings for "Qana Jana ut li junkaba'al," and I was truly touched.  All week long people have been inviting me to spend the holiday with their families, to come watch the pig be slaughtered and to learn how the famous Christmas tamales are made.  Locals have always been concerned that I live out here alone, without my family, or a husband, or anybody else to take care of me.  But this Christmas they've all been especially concerned that I have a family to spend Christmas with, that I eat many tamales, and that I talk to my family back home.  Nothing and nobody can replace my family back home, but these folks sure do a pretty good job at taking care of me and making me feel loved.

The kids singing a song on the 23rd. Cristien and Dilan were the "U" and "C."

I decided to spend Christmas Eve with Naomi's family (her mother is Pastor Isabel of the Evangelical church).  I spent the morning making Cheesecake brownies and Rice Krispie Treats, enjoyed a nice hot bucket bath, and walked over to their house in the early afternoon.  I like spending time with Naomi's family because they treat me as an equal; they're used to Gringos (they've been hosting groups of American missionaries for years) so they're not as fazed by me as some other local families.  (You'd think after all this time people wouldn't fawn over me so much, but my Gringa-ness just never gets old for most people around here.)  I spent the afternoon playing Uno and Huicha (a Guatemalan game reminiscent of Parcheesi) with Naomi's brothers.  Around dusk I helped Doña Isabel wrap up 80 Christmas tamales out back by the chicken coop.  I'm awful at tamale-making but she put me to work tying the banana leaves up with raffia.  Pastor Isabel is a licensed social worker and has spent time in the States doing church work so she's uncharacteristically open about different religions, cultures and philosophies.  And she loves to talk.  We had a grand ole time folding tamales in the dark, chatting about social work and life in the States.  She couldn't stop talking about how fast Americans walk.  I told her that it still pains me how slowly Guatemalans walk.  After all the tamales were made and steaming over the fire, we played some more Uno while everybody got dressed up and ready for dinner.  Around 10:30pm we sat down, unveiled the steaming tamales, and gave thanks for a wonderful Christmas.  Right before midnight we all bundled up (despite it being 60+ degrees outside) and went outside to await the show.  Campur at midnight sounded like it was under an air-raid attack; everybody outside in the roads, all setting off fireworks at once, hooting and hollering all the way.  It was actually kind of nice, and perhaps the first time I've ever enjoy fireworks here.  I still miss the comfort of home, but I couldn't have asked for a better holiday here.  Wednesday I'm off for El Salvador where I'll be bringing in the New Year with four fellow PCVs.  It's been a great year.

The Christmas Eve feast: tamales, fruit, bread, tostadas, and ponche (basically hot fruit coctail).

Naomi and her brothers ready for the feast!

Monday, December 19, 2011

A good ride

Riding home on the Campur bus after dark.  I could count on one hand how many times this has happened over the past twenty months, mostly because I tend to travel early in the day.  But every once in a very long while, it works out that I end up on the bus that doesn't leave the city until right before dusk.  It's perhaps equally as rare that I end up in the passenger seat of the microbus. 

Some observations on the microbus passenger seat: it's seemingly the most prized seat, the best/most comfortable seat on the bus and is therefore one of the first to be claimed.  However, the bus driver/ayudante will often informally reserve this seat for someone special (usually a woman).  A woman they know, either from their family, or professionally, or a woman whom they know is respected.  I've seen drivers kick others out of the passenger seat to give it to more passenger-seat deserving women such as the head nurse from the village health center, the female director of one of my schools, or, of course, me (in these cases I've always denied their offer and taken a seat in the back--I'm not about to boot anybody out just because I'm the village Gringa--can't say I haven't been tempted, though).  So that's another thing about the passenger seat--even if you get there first while it's still unoccupied, you can't just sit there.  This is what you do instead: As the microbus sits in the lot waiting to fill up and leave, there's a certain dance that one must go through to get on the bus.  There is typically only one bus leaving for each village at a time.  Each of these microbuses are clearly marked with the name of their origin and the name of their destination in block adhesive lettering on the windshield (so even if I didn't recognize the driver as one of the Campur bus drivers, which by now I always do, I could just get on the bus with the giant "CAMPUR" stamped on its windshield).  Despite this fact, upon approaching your chosen bus, the ayudante (literally "helper," he is the bus driver's assistant who handles the fares, the passengers' cargo, etc.) will surely ask "B'ar yookat?" ("Where are you going?") to which I reply, "Q'anpur" ("to Campur").  This interaction happens even with ayudantes who have known me for a while, who know where I'm going before they even ask me.  The ayudante, satisfied with my response, tells me "hay lugares atrás" ("there are spaces in the back") and takes any large bags I might have and ties them to the cargo rack on the micro's roof.  This gives me free reign on any of the unoccupied seats on the bus.  Except, of course, the passenger seat.  To get the passenger seat, the ayudante (oftentimes via the driver) will instead state "pase adelante Seño" ("go up front Miss") and unlock and open the front passenger side door before loading my cargo on the roof.  Or, if I'm feeling bold and see that the passenger seat is vacant, I can ask if I can "pasar adelante," and they'll either tell me it's reserved or let me have it. 

Why do I like the passenger seat?  One: window control.  I can roll up and down my window as I please to control the air flow.  Two: a seat belt.  It's the only seat on the bus with one, and my Gringa self likes the (false?) security.  Three: the view.  The view through the front windshield is undoubtably the best one, and makes it the easiest to avoid carsickness on those endlessly windy mountain roads.  And four: roominess.  I have watched in wonder/horror as ayudantes pack four more people and a baby into a microbus that was already overcapactiy to begin with.  In the back of the micro, chaos reigns.  More passengers mean more bus fares, so the ayudante will literally cram it full until people are three to a seat, with another standing over them, using the ceiling for support and balance.  In the front, however, there are limits.  Microbus drivers take their job seriously (as they should), and won't risk compromising their driving ability by having some passenger sitting in their lap.  So the most I've ever seen sit in the front is four: the driver and three passengers (which due to the little booster seat in the front center four really isn't as crowded as it seems). 

So tonight I won the microbus lottery.  Not only did my bus leave after 5:30pm, but I was elected to sit in the passenger throne (this particular bus driver knows me well and always gives me passenger seat dibs).  Cruising at dusk with the road stretched out in front of me, Fleet Foxes playing through my earbuds; it was the most pleasant ride I've taken in a long, long while.  There's just something about riding along at night that's so peaceful, so cozy.  As the daughter of two musicians I used to love nothing more than the long car rides back from my parents' evening gigs in the city.  The interstate was so smooth and hypnotizing the way the streetlamps would go by at even intervals, the car not slowing down or speeding up but gliding along at a constant, unfaltering speed.  I don't know why, but those car rides made me feel so safe.  Like we could glide along like that forever.  I used to always wake up at the off-ramp to our neighborhood and be sad that we were almost home.

There's something similarly calming and comforting about traveling the Campur road at night.  The warm humid breeze hitting my face, the street unfolding only as far as the headlights illuminate it, the eclectic mix of pine and palm trees passing on the roadside.  Watching the roadside tiendas pass, each with only a small candle lighting it's interior, or for the few that have electricity, a single bare bulb.  Smelling the smokey smell of the comales heating up over the wood fires, watching small groups of people hurry home on the roadside.  And once off the main road, becoming completely enveloped by the darkness, amazed how this automobile can maneuver the dirt road, working it's way through the jungle like a familiar stranger until finally, I'm home. 

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Day of the Devil and Aguacatan

On my way back from Mexico I spent two lovely nights in Aguacatan, Huehuetenango, where my volunteer friend Callie lives and works.  Aguacatan is a larger pueblo situated in a nice sunny valley of Huehue, equipped with a central park, market, countless tiendas, a pool, and much more.  I was immediately jealous of Callie when I discovered that she can buy fresh whole wheat bread in her site, something unimaginable to me in my bakeryless village.  But while she may have easy access to whole grain products, her daily commutes to her schools are like nothing I've experienced here.  On the second day of my visit we headed up to one of her schools where she had scheduled a cooking class with some of her students and members of the community.  We had to leave her house at 6:30am to arrive at the school by 9am.  Two bus rides, a road-block, an hour-long walk and finally a ride in the back of a pickup later, we arrive at her school, dusty and tired but ready to start cooking.  The class was so much fun and her students were great, although extremely shy.  Luckily we were able to catch a direct bus back at noon, and were back at her house before 1pm.  I can't imagine facing such a complicated commute everyday, especially in the rainy season, and have a new-found respect for Callie's work in her schools.  I'm lucky enough that three of my four schools are within walking distance (the furthest only a 45-minute walk), and only one is a bit complicated depending on if I can find a ride or not.  But I guess in Peace Corps you win some and lose some--I love my site in so many ways, but sometimes it's frustrating that I have to go two hours into the city to buy things like olive oil and skim milk and wheat bread.  On the other hand, however, I don't have to take two bus rides up a mountainside to get to work.

On my second night in Aguacatan we got to bear witness to the wonderful Day of the Devil festivities, which happen every year on December 7th.  Day of the Devil (Dia del diablo) is a Guatemalan festivo in which they construct or buy papier-mache Devils, stuff them full of cheap fireworks, set them in the middle of the road in front of their homes, and come dusk, set the whole thing on fire.  It's also traditional for families to spring-clean their houses, dragging whatever they deem as garbage into the street and burning that, as well.  Dia del diablo is a chance for people to literally clean out and burn up the demons that have been hiding away in the nooks and crannies of their homes, in preparation for the new year.  It's always best to start the new year off demon-free. 

Devil burning (photo courtesy of Kevin W's blog)
While the concept behind Day of the Devil has its appeal (I'm a big supporter of spring-cleaning and ridding oneself of worthless junk once a year), its result is less appealing.  Come dusk, all throughout the pueblo the streets are filled with things on fire.  God forbid a windy night come through (this is the peak of dry season, after all) and who knows what else might end up in ashes along with the demons and old mattresses.  And if the fire-littered streets weren't enough, as each Devil burns up, the nice little stockpile of firecrackers hidden in its papier mache breadbasket ignite all at once, creating a cacophony of loud and violent pyrotechnics.  Callie and I lasted about two minutes in the street in front of her house before we retreated once again to the fire-free confines of her kitchen.  The fire, smoke, and ear-piercing fireworks were a little too much for us Gringas.  (Although in my lovely home of Alta Verapaz, in San Cristobal, they take Dia del Diablo to an entirely different level.  In San Cris they do something called "Balls of Fire" (Bolos de Gas) where they soak soccer balls in gasoline, ignite them, and then kick them around at each other, throwing people in the public pila in the event that they should catch on fire, as well.)

Its always been a big mystery to me why, in a country that was overrun with civil war violence and genocide not 15 years ago why the locals seem to love so fondly the violent, noisy, and jolting experience of setting off fireworks at all hours of the day and night.  I just don't get it.

Mexico and things

December is flying.  After a Gender and Development committee meeting in Xela on the 2nd, I took off for Chiapas, Mexico with two of my fellow GAD ladies for a four-night stint in San Cristobal de las Casas.  I'll quote some of my journal notes on the trip:

Only a day after plunging head-first (via two terribly long and tiring bus rides) into the heart of the Western highlands, my head still hurts from the altitude and the skin on my face and lips is chapped and cracked from the total lack of moisture in the air.  After not leaving the humid and eternally rainy Alta Verapaz for a while I tend to forget that the rest of the country is in the peak of the dry season.  Dry season is nice since you never have to plan for rain, and it gives the Guatemalans the perfect chance to sun-dry their corn harvest of the season, which you see spread across corrugated tin roofs for miles and miles, hanging from its own papery husks from clotheslines and makeshift racks.  But it's hard to acclimate to this dryness, especially with the dust.  At the end of a day, I'm literally covered in a thin layer of brownish dust that, after being kicked up off the roads by buses and people, settles on whatever surface it chooses.

The road through Huehuetenango to the Mexican border is a beautiful ride, although I often have to pry my attention away from the chicken bus window to entertain the infant whose mother is seated next to me, who I've found will stop crying if I wave my braid in her face until she grabs it with her little sticky baby hands.  The mother seems relieved that the Gringa has found such an effective tear-stopping tactic, and continues babbling away in Quiche or whatever Mayan language she's speaking to her friend across the aisle.  My legs ache from bracing against the turns, and I wonder how one could possibly manage chicken bus travel with an infant in tow.  It's hard enough keeping track of myself and my backpack.  As we near the border, I look around the bus and wonder if any of my fellow passengers are Guatemalans on their way to the States.  I hear it everyday from people around my village; "I'm going to go to the U.S. soon to make some money" as if they had just decided to wash a load of laundry.  Risking their lives to cross the borders is a risk that a lot of people here feel forced to take.

San Cristobal de las Casas.
A very small Mexican banana
Carrie keeps joking that after living in Guatemala for so long, Mexico is going to seem like the land of milk and honey to us.  But in a lot of ways, it really has.  The landscapes, architecture, and people don't look much different at all here than in a city in Guatemala.  But there is something different in the way people are talking and carrying themselves, a different vibe in the air, that is completely new and intriguing.

A door I liked in San Cris
Walking through the city center on the way to our hostel that first night I stared in awe and all the European-style sidewalk cafes and the people seated at tables, drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes, without a care in the world.  On our last night we stopped into a bar/cafe where a hipstered-out Mexican guy was playing excellently-executed coffeehouse acoustic versions of Pearl Jam, DMB, Nirvana--my high school playlist more or less.  I found myself utterly captivated, sitting there with a big stupid smile on my face, all for some silly live coffeehouse music.  But that's the thing--I haven't seen or even come near to anything so close to home the entire time I've been in Guatemala.  There are no coffeehouses where I live; no hipster musicians plugging out Eddie Vedder covers while sipping a Corona.  Because that's the thing--I don't really miss technology, cable TV, fast food.  I can do without hot water and dishwashers, albeit begrudgingly.  The things I miss most are live music, coffeehouses where I can sit all day long, cozy bookstores, sidewalk cafes and restaurants, yoga classes, talking with informed people about informed things--that's what feels most like home to me.
Parade in San Cris

San Cris, in some ways, reminds me a lot of Barcelona.  The people have that same relaxed vibe--but maybe it's because most people we meet are Mexicans on vacation from other parts of the country.  What are the San Cris locals like, I wonder?  Chiapas is the center of the Zapatista/EZLN movement, and I was hoping to be able to meet some of these Zapatistas.  But after asking around, we decided against it; you have to obtain special permission to enter the Zapatista communities and, as I heard later from a traveler who had gone himself, they blindfold you on the last leg of the bus trip so that you don't know the exact location of their community.  They wear black face masks when in the public eye to protect their identity, and from pictures I've seen, are armed to the teeth.  So needless to say I think it's best we stayed in San Cris.
San Cris street art (reads "Monsanto is not a saint")
But we did have a chance to meet some of the women in TierraAdentro, a cafe/restaurant that identifies itself with the movement and is the home of several shops owned by Zapatista women artisans.  It was really fascinating, on many levels, to see indigenous women so empowered and so involved in a political movement.  That revolutionary vibe, in fact, seems to be spread throughout the city.   The street art is all pro-anarchy and anti-corporation.  Lots of the people we see and have met are free-spirits, hippies talking of chakras and inner-warriors and such.  But then a parade passes by and I'm pulled back to the Central American culture I know so well, full of parades, religion, and procedure.

Palenque/Misol Ha.
Mexico is familiar and amazingly different all at once.  Because once you leave the city and drive for about 5 hours, you get to Palenque, the Mayan ruins of Chiapas.
Mayan ruins at Palenque
The ruins were beautiful, and we made it a point to climb up all the biggest temples (we had opted out of a guide because who really wants to hear where the ancient Mayans might have eaten breakfast?) and enjoy the beautiful weather.  The bus ride was long and exhausting, but it was great to see all that we did in one short day.  A few of the pretentious hippies running our hostel told us "you can only see maybe 2% of the ruins in one short visit, it's not worth it."  But I'm no archeologist, and while the ruins are amazingly majestic and beautiful, after a while they all start to look the same.  One day of Mayan ruins was plenty for me, thanks.  Four days of Mexico, however, wasn't nearly enough.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

A quote

Sometimes we just read the right book at the right time, and to everything in it we think "Yes! Exactly; I've been thinking this for a while now but couldn't put it into words. And here it is, in ink."  Well this Kapuscinski book has been that way for me.  Even though he writes only of his travels in Africa, at times I feel like he could be writing about Guatemala.  If nothing else, this book has further solidified my goal to make it to Africa.

"Our world, seemingly global, is in reality a planet of thousands of the most varied and never intersecting provinces.  A trip around the world is a journey from backwater to backwater, each of which considers itself, in its isolation, a shining star.  For most people, the real world ends on the threshold of their house, at the edge of their village, or, at the very most, on the border of their valley.  That which is beyond is unreal, unimportant, and even useless, whereas that which we have at our fingertips, in our field of vision, expands until it seems an entire universe, overshadowing all else.  Often, the native and the newcomer have difficulty finding a common language, because each looks at the same place through a different lens.  The newcomer has a wide-angle lens, which gives him a distant, diminished view, although one with a long horizon line, while the local always employs a telescopic lens that magnifies the slightest detail."  --Ryszard Kapuscinski, The Shadow of the Sun: My African Life

Monday, November 28, 2011

Happy Thanksgiving!

10 things I'm (belatedly) thankful for this year:
  1. I'm thankful for my amazing family and friends back home who I missed so dearly over the holiday.  Without their undying support and encouragement, I'm not sure where I'd be. 
  2. All the amazing people I've met, relationships I've formed, places I've seen, and experiences I've had over the last 19 months.  
  3. All the mistakes I've made and learned from, the bad days I've survived, the loneliness and self-doubt I've overcome, and the many rough patches I've gone through over the last 19 months.  After all, it's hard to to appreciate the good without the bad. 
  4. I'm thankful for all my loyal blog-readers out there.  As of this week, Cartas de Lejos is 10,000 views strong.
  5. For beans, cabbage, eggs, veggies and fruit.  The Guatemalan diet isn't too shabby.
  6. For all of the lessons I've learned from the people in my village.  For all the love and respect they've given me that I never feel I truly earned.  For all the good days in site, that kept me going through year one and will keep me going through year two.
  7. I'm thankful for all the amazing Peace Corps friends I've made despite geographic barriers and hardly ever seeing one another.  Especially for those who I know I can call and cry to on the bad days.
  8. I'm thankful that in around 12 hours and about $10-20 worth of bus tickets, I can swim in the Caribbean Sea, the Pacific Ocean, or cross the border into in Honduras, Belize, El Salvador, or Mexico.
  9. I thankful that I was able to spend my Thanksgiving day 2011 hiking barefoot through the muddy jungle, climbing a waterfall, laying on a dock chatting about nothing for hours, and eating a Thanksgiving feast of local Tapado (Coconut-fish soup), Coconut bread, and not-so-local Chocolate Pudding Jelly Bellies.
  10. And last but not least, I'm thankful for Marie Sharp's Belizean Fiery Hot Habanero Pepper Sauce, and that it made it back in my backpack unbroken.

*Since drafting this I heard that six of the girls that I spent this weekend with were held up at gunpoint on their bus ride home yesterday afternoon.  They are all okay, although understandably shaken up, and dealing with getting their stolen phones and credit cards replaced.  From what I've heard from them they are handling it extremely well--that's after all what PCV's are really good at--not letting the ugly and sometimes scary realities of living and working in a developing country overshadow the amazing times and experiences we have here.  So I'll add an eleventh "I'm thankful for" and say that I am so so thankful that my friends are safe and okay.  I know that they'll all bounce back from this with characteristic grace because that's just how strong and independent they are.  

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Another chance to help

This is Any (pronounced like Annie with a soft "a") Cordova Caal, a 16-year old recent graduate of Tercero Básico, the Guatemalan equivalent to 9th grade.  Out of over 50 of her peers, she was one of only 24 to pass the final exams, and has one of the highest averages.  She's an amazing student--driven, hardworking--and wants badly to continue her education.  She would like to enroll in Emilio Rosales Ponce Magisterio (teacher training) program, located in the city of Coban, a 2-hour drive from Campur.  In order to study there, she will need to live in Coban, rent a room, pay for food, etc.  One of the realities of living in an Indigenous, rural village in Guatemala is that oftentimes higher education doesn't come to the students; the students have to go to the education.

Any comes from a very poor, single-parent home and desperately needs financial assistance to be able to afford the cost of going to Magisterio.  She explains (translated from Spanish):

"Five years ago my father abandoned us, he mortgaged off the house where we were living and the little bit of land that we owned.  My mother couldn't make the mortgage payments so we lost everything.  Right now we all live in a small one-roomed wooden house that my mother had built with the little money she earned working.  My mother is who has raised us, she has fought hard to make sure that we are alright, but she is a housewife who doesn't know how to read or write.  Everyday she gets up early and sells food in front of the Health Center, sometimes failing, which leaves her exhausted.  My father currently lives in the capitol city where he has another wife and three more children.  Sometimes he sends us money--between Q300-Q400--and when it gets very bad he has us call him so that he can send us some more.  Both of my brothers are ready to enter into middle school, but only the younger one will go because my mother can't cover the costs of sending both of them to school.  My older brother will instead work for a few years and save some money for his studies."

"I want to continue studying--becoming a teacher is my dream--the thing that really made me choose this career path was the huge problem of Education that we have today in Guatemala.  There are still so many illiterate people, and I want to be a part in developing my own country and helping the people that most need it, those in my own community.  I'm a creative person with an open-mind, and I would like put these skills to use in bettering my community.  As a recent graduate I want to work, to volunteer my knowledge, demonstrate my skills in a school setting as well as help illiterate people in my community to read and write.  My other goal is to help my mother and give her the best, as she has worked so hard for me and my three siblings.  I also want to make sure that all of my siblings can continue their studies."

I have coordinated with the Director of Any's middle school and the wonderful people at Friends of Guatemala (FOG) to set up a scholarship fund for Any's education.  Below is the annual budget of what it will cost Any to study for one year in the teacher-training program.  Her mother has agreed to do all she can to pay for a little less than half of the total cost. 

One Time Costs

One-time costs total
Monthly Costs

Monthly Costs Subtotal
Monthly Costs x 10 months=Monthly Total
Annual Total (one-time costs + monthly costs)
 Minus Family Collaboration @ 45%
To be fundraised:
= $820.00

Let's rally our forces and send Any to Magisterio!!  If you are unable to make a donation at this time, please help by spreading the word and forwarding this page to those who may be able to help!

All donations are tax deductible and will go directly to Any in the form of a monthly scholarship payment.

Donations should be sent to:

Friends of Guatemala          
P.O. Box 33018
Washington, D.C. 20033

*Please write “Any Caal – Cat. II” in the subject line of the check so that Friends of Guatemala know which scholarship student the donation is for.

Questions?  Email me at hgdalman@gmail.com.

Thank you for your support and Happy Thanksgiving!!

From left: Any, Elsa, Sandra, and me

Friday, November 11, 2011

Driving Miss Daisy

I've gotten in the habit of taking the tourist shuttle between my site and Santa Lucia when I travel for Peace Corps business.  Caesar, one of the drivers/owners of the shuttle company, is really great with PC volunteers and cuts us a great discount.  He also picks me up on the side of the highway outside of my site and takes me directo--it's just so nice not having to worry about changing buses three times, or being the victim of the oh-too-frequent bus robberies.

Yesterday I had arranged to go back on the 2:00pm shuttle, and waited patiently in the burning sun at the Santa Lucia bus terminal.  An hour later the shuttle arrived, with a happy Caesar aboard.  Upon putting my backpack on the roof, and making sure I was settled in nicely, Caesar casually told me "Alright, I'm going to stay here. You'll be the guide, right Hannah? My friend here who's driving never goes this route so you'll guide him. See you soon!"  And with that, he pulled the sliding door shut and off we went.  I looked around--a van full of German tourists.  I looked at the driver in the rear view mirror, and he caught my eye and said "Caesar says you've done this trip many times. I'll need your help getting through Guate."  I laughed, as reality began to sink in.  This driver and van full of Germans were counting on me to get them to Coban.  Me, one of the most bona fide directionally-challenged women of this century.  This is something I know, and that everybody who knows me well enough knows.  Back home, I GoogleMap everything.  I still find myself chanting "Never Eat Soggy Waffles" to remember my cardinal directions.  I've lived in Chicago my entire life and I still sometimes get on the bus or train going in the wrong direction.

As I sat there pondering the hilarity of the situation, the driver caught my attention to ask which way to veer in an oncoming fork in the road.  Soon enough, I was hanging over the back of the driver's seat, squinting out the windows trying desperately to recognize anything familiar on the side of the Guatemalan freeway.  And somehow between the driver's common sense, my recognition of a few key landmarks, and a few desperate calls to Caesar for help, we got out of Guate and onto the main highway, where we started the straight-shot, no-brainer journey up to Coban.

As I sat back and took a sigh of relief, I realized that this seemingly ridiculous situation represented so many other experiences I've had here as a PC volunteer.  So often here I've found myself back-seat driving for a Guatemalan on a route that I only know a little bit better than he or she.  I've found myself having to put on my expert hat in so many situations in which I've felt as far from a expert as possible.  I've "taught" Guatemalan women how to use a dutch-oven when it was only the second time ever using one myself.  I've taught middle-school lectures on self-esteem and goal-setting when I often question how well I do these things in my own life.  Construction workers have asked my approval on bottle-walls that were as new a concept to me as they were to them.  So much of my service here boils down to just that: back-seat driving on a route that I only sort of know.  I came here 18 months ago an expert in absolutely nothing.  But what I did come with was a willingness to learn, adjust, and go with the flow.  And with that, a bit of luck, and access to a plethora of resources, all I can do is just hope that my Guatemalan counterparts and I reach our destination together.  Or at least come a little bit closer to it that we were before.

Friday, November 4, 2011


It's around 5:00pm, and we're sitting in stop and go traffic (more stop than go) on the way from Sumpango to Zaragoza where I'll be spending the night.  Every year on November 1st--Dia de Todos Santos--there's the big kite festival in Sumpango, a pueblo about an hour's drive from the capitol.  Teams of people spend months crafting enormous kites out of tissue paper and bamboo and gather in Sumpango to display their craftsmanship and attempt to fly their design.  Some of the larger kites span over five meters in diameter and thus don't really fly--but they are a spectacle nonetheless.  There were rumors this year that one of the bigger kites crashed and injured a few spectators in the crowd.  We had already gone when this supposedly happened, but it wouldn't surprise me.  The largest kites are so bulky and the crowd stands so close, it's kind of an accident waiting to happen.  That seems to be an ongoing theme in Guatemala.  There are always a lot of accidents waiting to happen.  Maybe that's why nobody seems too surprised when they do.

Some of the graves at the Sumpango cemetery.

We ventured through the Sumpango cemetery on the way back to the highway to wait for our bus.  Every single grave was lavishly decorated with flowers, colorful tissue paper, photos.  Families sat around their relatives' graves, hanging out, eating, perfecting their plastic-wrapped adornments.  All of this attention on the dead seemed to divert one's thoughts from the idea of death itself.  The melancholy nature of this holiday just doesn't occur to you when you're standing in front of a giant dandelion-colored sarcophagus covered in flowers and streamers and people.  Yet another Guatemalan occasion where tradition and painstaking procedure seem to overshadow the underlying event.

We continued on, eating our way through the narrow streets of Sumpango.  Guatemalan elephant ears covered in sticky honey, sweet cornbread tamales, brown-sugar boiled squash, piping hot cheese-filled papusas--street food is one of the greatest things about living in this country.  On the chicken bus we sat in our fought-for seats, and soon enough, by some combination of the vibration of the idling motor, the body heat of the other 90 people crammed tightly in the old school bus, and the dreariness from being out in the Sumpango sun all day (and possibly that elephant ear I washed down with a Gallo tall boy), I passed out, hard.  I woke up when we starting moving freely down the highway, realizing I was snuggled up in the paca-bought puff jacket sleeve of the Guatemalan man sitting next to me.  He was unfazed, and surprisingly, so was I.  I can't imagine what a fellow Chicagoan would do back home if I decided to take an impromptu blue line nap on their arm.  But here I've had a dozen Guatemalan strangers fall asleep on me.  This was my chance to cash in for my tolerant ways, and it was wonderful.  From now on, I will vow to sleep on as many shoulders as I want.  Because just as those kites took off into the air leaving behind their land-bound homes, I can branch out beyond my American personal-space-bubble and have a lovely little nap on a shoulder.

My favorite kite on display. Its caption reads:
"The life of mother nature lays in our hands."

Tuesday, October 25, 2011


I wake up early, 5:00am.  It's still dark, and too damp and chilly for a cold shower.  I sponge bathe in the pila, get my things ready, and go out to catch the 6:00am bus.  Olga told me yesterday that today they'll probably burn the "culpable's" house in retribution for don Mario's death last week.  So I thought it best to spend the day in Coban, run some errands, and avoid being witness to a lynching.  I need olive oil, after all.  Olive oil is as good a reason as any to avoid being caught up in an angry Guatemalan mob.  Sure enough, as my bus pulls out of the roundabout, a small mob of people head towards the guilty man's small pharmacy, and not fifteen minutes later, when I turn to look out the back window of the microbus, a column of dark smoke is rising from the middle of Campur.

Sunday was don Mario's funeral; Dilan and I watched the long, somber procession from my window.  Don Mario was a COCODE, or town leader, and apparently highly respected in Campur.  He was young, only 35 years old.  I spent three days asking around, hoping for a real answer to how and why he died.  After three days I had a story that's real only in the cultural context it was told in.  Apparently don Mario got into a bit of a land dispute with another man from town, don Carlos, who subsequently put a curse on don Mario, who had a "derrame cerebral" (which is either a brain hemorrhage or a stroke, I'm still not sure) and died in the hospital a few days later.  Rumors of a lynching have been circulating ever since he died, and don Carlos went into hiding.

I get back from Coban late in the afternoon and visit with Olga who catches me up with what happened.  "They tried to burn the pharmacy, which isn't actually his pharmacy but his brother's. But because it's made of block, only the wooden store next to it burned.  They found the guilty one and beat him.  He's in the hospital now; he was bleeding from his ear so he might die, too."  She got to go in to work late this morning, she tells me, since everybody went to go witness the burning there was no business on this side of town.  We talk about how it's a pity that an innocent's store was burned because of all of this, and that Don Carlos might die.  In hopes of lightening the mood, I dig in my bag and give her the box of microwave popcorn I bought her at the Walmart in Coban.  She just got a microwave through her Avon sales and has been talking about it for a week.  I explain to her that this popcorn is especially made just for microwaves like hers.  She opens the box and hands me a packet--"you take one, too, so you can make it in your microwave."  I don't have a microwave, I tell her, just an oven.  "You can't make this in the oven?"  No, I tell her, it's only for microwaves.  "But what's the difference between a microwave and an oven, then?" she asks me.  I stall for a minute, wondering how I'll ever be able to explain in Spanish how a microwave functions.  "A microwave simply agitates the food by zapping it with tiny waves until the food is so agitated that it heats up by itself"??  Hah.  I cop out and tell her that a microwave is able to get very hot very quickly which is why it can make the popcorn pop.  When everybody around me apparently believes you can curse a man into having a stroke, how can I expect anybody to understand the mechanisms of a microwave oven?  I may as well just claim that microwaves function on the same witchcraft that killed don Mario.  Would everybody burn their microwaves, then, too?

Friday, October 21, 2011


Nothing like a sunny Friday to pull me out of what's been a week-long slump.  I went to bed last night wearing wool socks, two fleeces, and sweats, and woke up to a beautiful, sunny morning.  Peace Corps lifted the Standfast today, as well, although with warning that another storm is threatening to pass through on Sunday.  I don't know if I can take another week of cold and rain.

I will try to stay positive, however, and focus on the good things in life.  Like sunshine, and all the good books I'm reading in this so-called slump of mine.  I also just got the news today that the Operation Groundswell volunteers finished the proposal for the Tzibal cancha project.  It's going to be a great project and I am continually impressed by the hard work and passion of these volunteers!  Please please please check out the website here and make your donation!

Tuesday, October 18, 2011


Standfasted yet again.  Yesterday the President declared the country under a "State of Calamity*" due to the damage done by the recent rains.  I suppose Peace Corps had little choice but to declare another standfast for all of its volunteers in response to this, but it doesn't make it any easier.  I try not to complain--I wasn't planning on traveling anyway; it's just hard to be reminded, over and over, that I have no real control over my life here.  I am a child of a governmental organization, and if they say jump, I better do it.  Luckily Campur and the surrounding areas have little to no damage--I've heard rumors of landslides further south on the highway towards Guatemala City, but nothing as bad as out in the Occidente.  In every bit of news I hear the death count gets higher and higher.  But as they always seem to do here, they will fix the roads, dig out their muddy villages, and continue on.  I can gripe all I want about being told I can't leave site, but I am safe, and I am dry.  I truly have nothing to complain about.

Today I went up to Tzibal for their very belated Dia del Niño celebration (it was postponed due to the Bottle School inauguration).  Dia del Niño (Children's Day) is a yearly celebration similar to Mother's Day and Father's Day, only this time it's celebrating the children.  The first I ever heard of Dia del Niño was back in training, when I was still living with my host family in San Bartolome.  Ladinos in particular tend to spoil the living daylight out of their children and this is what I saw all through training.  Child-rearing in a Ladino household, to my American eyes, seemed like utter chaos.  No structure, no rules, and never ever say "no."  Spanking the hell out of them with a rubber sandal is the only real disciplinary tactic.  No wonder I scoffed at the idea of having an entire holiday devoted to children.  "Everyday is children's day," I thought, thinking back to my own self-centered childhood and adolescence.  Now I think back and realize how wrong I was.  For families in rural Guatemala, el Dia del Niño is important.  Many of these children don't get much of a childhood; for those that do it's often cut quite short.  Whenever I take the 5:30am microbus out of Campur I'm greeted by the ayudante who opens the bulky sliding door for me and collects my fare.  He can't be older than eight or nine years old.  When children don't have jobs in the outside world, they're surely working in the homes, helping their mothers raise multiple children, tend a store, keep up with housework, what have you.  So yes, having a day to celebrate children, childhood, and education (as most Dia del Niño celebrations are coordinated by the local primary school) makes sense.  Up in Tzibal we had two piñatas, some games, and a Kak'ik lunch (which we owe to Plan Internacional for donating the chicken).  The school couldn't afford to make tortillas for the Kak'ik, so the students each brought a few from home to eat with their soup.  I of course didn't get this memo, but was just fine enjoying my soup sans-tortillas.  As we sat around eating, however, two little first grade girls came over and each handed me a cold tortilla.  I watched them go back to their seats and saw that they had given me their last ones.  I knew that trying to give them back would be ineffective and possibly rude so I ate them, recognizing that even on their day, these kids were still making sure that the gringa had her food.  My cheeks burned as I wondered whether my 7 year-old self was capable of that degree of selfless attentiveness.  My guess is no. 

*The last State of Calamity was announced in the aftermath of last year's tropical storm Agatha and the eruption of Volcan Pacaya.  I wonder if these are often a yearly event.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Lost in translation

"He says I have different personalities: that my Lingala is sweet and maternal, but in English I'm sarcastic. I told him, 'That's nothing--in French I'm a mine sweeper. Which personality annoys you the most?'"  The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver, p. 433

I read this passage this morning while outside basking in the ever glorious sunshine.  I've always wondered this myself; how different is the English-speaking me from the Spanish-speaking one?  Q'eqchi'-speaking me is still just a hot mess, so there's no real question there (just yesterday as I was walking home with a woman from the women's group I'm pretty sure I said something along the lines of "Much rocks there is in the road and to come out the sun does right now I will wash the, uh, the huipil...many the huipil.")  I do wonder how differently people here perceive me though--people that only know the Spanish-speaking me.  Sure body language and actions have a lot to do with that, but rhetoric is undeniably important.  I find that in Spanish, especially in Guatemalan Spanish (which is actually quite different from the Spanish I spoke in Barcelona), I'm more direct, to the point, perhaps even forward.  At the tienda I hardly give a second thought to my "Dame una bolsita de cloro," (lit. "Give me a little bag of bleach.") when only months ago I still tried to find other ways to say it.  I'd never walk into a store in America and demand the clerk to "give me" anything--but here that's just what you say...that's what everybody says.  In America it's all "Can I have" this and "Could you please" that.  In America I'm sarcastic.  Here, I'm more literal--perhaps that's as far as my imperfect Spanish skills will let me go.  When it comes down to it I'm simply mimicking those around me.  If I literally translated my thoughts from English, nobody would have a clue what I was talking about.  Translations are never direct.  When I ask somebody in Q'eqchi' "Ma sa laach'ool?" (How are you?) I'm literally asking them "Is you heart rich?"  When I ask somebody in Spanish "Con permiso" (May I come in?) I'm actually saying "With permission?"  So how much of me and my English-speaking self gets lost in translation?  It's one of those things we'll never know.  Just like it's impossible to ever know if what I know/see as the color blue is the same as the blue you see, I'll never be able to step over to the other side and see myself through a Guatemalan's eyes.  I'll never know what an American-speaking-Spanish foreign accent sounds like.  It's probably for the best, though--it would probably be just as horribly uncomfortable as hearing my own voice played back over a tape recorder.  I sound so much better in my own head; over recordings (and apparently to everybody else in the world) I sound like a doped-up child with a head cold.  Better to live with the delusion, in this case. 

Classes and exams are officially over as of last Friday, although schools will stay open until the end of the month so that the teachers and directors can turn in their yearly paperwork (which from what they tell me is quite extensive).  That means no classes to teach, no teachers to observe, and a lot more free time for me.  This week I'm focusing on getting the pila eco-drains finished and planning other vacation activities.  And more importantly I'll be working on beating Kevin on our week-long blog-off.  Seriously, though, in the spirit of good sportsmanship, his blog is pretty great, so definitely take the time to check it out: What Dreams May Come.

Sunday, October 16, 2011


The sun finally showed itself today, and for the first time in what feels like weeks, it wasn't raining when I went outside to brush my teeth after breakfast.

This morning, post coffee, I headed up to Tzibal to meet with the women about getting the pila drainage systems done so we can finally finish the project.  We had the meeting in Estella's main room (living room, I suppose) even though most of the room was occupied by a giant mound of corn.  Because of the rain, she's been keeping her corn harvest inside to keep it from molding--when the sun finally does come out she'll lay it out to dry before storing it in the rustic corn loft built into the roof beams of her kitchen.  As I was sitting there waiting for the women to show up, I just stared at the corn mountain before me, thinking back to childhood when we would rake leaf piles so huge we could swim in them--this corn mound had that same astonishing effect.  And it struck me that here, in front of me, was a literal visual representation of this family's foodstuffs for the next year (Peter Menzel would love it).  This mound of corn, with a diameter of perhaps three meters, will nourish Estela, her husband, and her three children until next year's harvest.  Little by little the dried corn will be plucked from the cobs, boiled, ground at the molina and cooked on a comal, and would be the family's daily tortillas and the bulk of each meal.  Sure there would be some beans, some eggs, perhaps some meat once in a while.  But tortillas are pretty much it.  People living up here are a bit luckier since they also benefit from seasonal fruit--mandarines, watermelon, oranges, bananas, occasionally apples--Guatemalans living in colder, less fertile areas of the country aren't so lucky.  Because I cook for myself I don't really eat tortillas unless I "eat out"--they're a filler, after all, and I earn more than enough money here to buy beans and eggs and vegetables from the market to fill myself up, and I own a refrigerator to store perishables.  Whenever I eat with Guatemalans they have a habit of counting how many tortillas I eat from the communal tortillas basket or gourd and then making fun of how few (usually I eat between 3-5), boasting that they eat 7, 8, 9, 10 with their meals.  A favorite question I always get asked: "What do you eat instead of tortillas in the United States?"  And there's really no easy answer.  We eat so much meat and such an astonishing variety of other foods that we don't have a staple filler-carb that's on the table at every meal.  Sure, maybe a basket of bread, but it's eaten as a side, not as the bulk of the meal.  Nonetheless, according to Michael Pollan in The Omnivore's Dilemma, Americans actually consume more corn than Central Americans due to our extremely large intake of packaged foods that are essentially processed corn products; corn in disguise.  And sitting there in front of that mound...I'd much rather eat tortillas every day. 

Once back from Tzibal I took advantage of this miraculous break in the rain to catch up on laundry.  Despite the fact that my knuckles started bleeding only halfway through my load, I finished it all and plan to reward myself with a nice afternoon nap.  Later on I'll eat my tortilla-free dinner, and as always, remind myself how extremely lucky I am to have never worried where my next meal would come from.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Baby bearing

This is a hanging baby.  I "borrowed" this picture from one of the OG volunteer's Fbook album.  Thanks, Laura!
Ever since I traveled to Morocco back when I was living abroad in Spain, I've been intrigued by the baby-carrying habits of other cultures.  Particularly in developing countries, where it often still falls solely on the mother to raise the children while the men work, mothers carry their babies everywhere they go and during everything they do.  There's got to be something said for that constant physical attachment between mother and baby.  Baby-bearing doesn't just mean the nine months.  Guatemalan women seem to bear their babies for months after they're actually born.  There are no strollers, no baby bouncy chairs, oftentimes not even a crib (babies will sleep with the mother in her bed).  I don't know what it is, but this type of baby-carrying has some mystical charm and beauty that just captivates me.  And here, what gets me more than anything else, is the Hanging Baby method.

This is the name I have dubbed to the baby-carrying method unique to the more remote villages surrounding Campur.  Women make a rustic baby hammock/sling out of an imported baby blanket which they wear suspended from a second cloth tie they anchor around their foreheads.   When the women aren't in transit, and it's baby break-time, they simply remove the hanging baby-hammock from their heads and hang them up on a spare hook, roof beam--whatever is available.  Thus in my women's group meetings there are usually around half a dozen babies hanging on the walls, sound asleep.  I absolutely love this.  It never ceases to make me smile.  I don't know what it is about it exactly--how inventive it is, how no American mother would dream of doing it, how content and cozy the babies look, how it involves hanging up babies like you would a coat, or a hat...I don't know.  But for whatever reason, this is my top favorite Guatemala-ism.

A woman toting her baby at a political rally.
Sometimes I don't understand how they manage to balance it like that.

When the kids get older, the baby-hammock method is swapped for the baby-sling method.

Friday, October 14, 2011


I wake up to more rain.  Another overcast day full of chipi chipi (light, drizzly rain) broken up only every so often with real, lamina-beating, puddle-causing rain.  It's been five or six days of this, I've lost count.  I hate when it's like this; days and days without the sun shining--it throws off my whole sleep pattern.  But I guess we still have it a lot better up here in Alta Verapaz than out West where the tropical depression has caused flooding, landslides, and even a few deaths.

I peel myself out of bed anyway, do my morning yoga with my good ole' friend Rodney Yee (or as Dilan likes to call him, "Yakeechahn") and clench my teeth through an especially cold shower (it's 65 degrees inside my house, colder in my outside bathroom) before boiling my water for coffee and oatmeal.  I dilly daddle around, enjoy my hot breakfast, and leave around 9:15 for the 8:30 Radio Q'anpur meeting.  I was formally invited to the meeting on Wednesday when Don René called me over to his market store to hand me an official invite, on which he had me write my own name ("What's the point, I remember thinking, I know my own name..") since spelling it himself was a challenge he, like most others, wasn't willing to take on.  The meeting is about a restructuring of the previously Catholic radio station into a more universal station meant to involve the whole community through a number of short programs, some religious, and some not.  Even though I don't arrive until 9:30, I'm the second person to show, and sit reading my book until we start at 10:15.  The meeting is, par for the course, extremely long and drawn out.  It's held in Q'eqchi', so I focus in on understanding what is being said to give myself something to do.  The best part, though, are their Spanish translations for me.  I am at the point in my Q'eqchi' where I can pick up the pith of the discussion, but not much more than that.  I know enough, however, to know that their translations are, frankly put, totally half-assed: Don Juan Jose speaks nonstop for ten full minutes about the goals and mission of this new radio station, which Don Rene follows up by turning to me and saying "Don Juan says that the radio station's goal is to develop the community and raise the villagers' spirits."  It reminds me of that scene in Lost in Translation when Bill Murray is filming the "Suntory Time" whiskey commercial.  The funny thing is that Guatemalan, particularly Q'eqchi' talk tends to be so pointlessly circular and drawn-out that summing up a ten-minute rant in a sentence or two isn't that outrageous.  I got the gist.  Three hours later and all we manage to do is decide on a new name for the Radio station and come up with the list of programs, and who will be responsible for them.  I leave the meeting with a weekly "Cuerpo de Paz" radio hour, so we'll just have to see how that pans out.  This show definitely presents me with the possibility of a reaching a lot more people than I have in my service so far.

I get home soaking (somehow I forgot both my umbrella and my raincoat) to meet Dilan who's patiently waiting for my return.  I read a book to him about a fútbol-playing penguin named Sergio and then send him home so I can eat lunch and relax for a bit.   My roof has a tendency to leak when there's a constant flow of rain like this, and today it's leaking in four spots, such that if I'm laying in my hammock, one of the drips smack me straight on the head.

I think I'll spend the afternoon reading and napping.  With this rain I just don't have the ganas of doing much else.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

September gone, October underway

It's Wednesday, which means it's been five days since the inauguration of the Tzibal eco escuela/bottle school.  It's strange being done, and having so much more time on my hands while I wait for the next project to start.  September was another whirlwind of a month here.  The inauguration was originally scheduled for the 30th, but due to construction delays and whatnot, we had to push it until the following Friday.  Meanwhile Jareau, my former sitemate, flew out for the 30th and despite the inauguration being pushed, spent a lovely 4-day visit here in Campur during which he cooked me perhaps one of the top tastiest meals I've had during my PC service here--fresh Tilapia (we hiked to a nearby finca and bought it that day...as we paid the guy the fish were literally still moving in the bag) pan-fried with a peanut-butter sauce served with rice, stewed veggies, and avocado.  It was so rich and yummy, and made me miss having such an adventurous culinary artist as a sitemate.  Jareau went on his way, and the week leading up to the rescheduled inauguration was expected madness.  But in the typical Guatemalan fashion, the inauguration seemed to get thrown together just in time, and the ceremony and ribbon-cutting were quite successful.  I've never felt so proud of a community, and been so incredibly flattered by their lovely words and gestures of thanks to me and those others who made the project happen.  It will be such an amazing thing to see the students of Tzibal learning in these rooms when classes resume in January--to say they deserve it just doesn't quite cut it.  A full photo story of the bottle school can be found here.

So now it's October, and here I sit on another 'Standfast' which PC Guate declared this morning due to a tropical depression currently passing over Guatemala.  Apart from a few ominous clouds and the cumpulsory night rainstorms, things are normal as pie here in the Alta Verapaz--so family, friends: no need to worry.  I do hope that all my volunteer friends out in the highlands are doing okay--I remember when Agatha passed through here over a year ago--I've never experienced so much rain in my life.  Lord knows what the roads/pueblos will look like after this one.  Mudslides galore and who knows what else...sometime it really does seem that Guatemala can never catch a break. 

In other news, the volunteers from Operation Groundswell who came out in July to help with the bottle school have generously agreed to fund the construction of a sports field in Tzibal.  During their visit they noted that the village kids don't have a formal sports field, just a few rocky/muddy clearings where they play during recess or after school hours.  So they are doing an amazing thing--writing a grant to fund the construction of a sports field/community meeting space, which we hope to begin construction on within the next few months.  The sports field, designed by the volunteer leader's inventive architect father, will incorporate a lightweight steel-cable roof design that will double as a water collection system complete with two water cisterns and community pilas.  I couldn't be more excited to see the Tzibal community receive yet another amazing project, and to continue working with and corresponding with the OG folks.  They have continued to impress me with their lasting dedication to the Tzibal community.  More on this project coming soon!


From the left: Erick, me, and Erick's sister Susana
(Note: This is a slightly overdue 'Part II' to this previous entry.)

Erick Rodolfo Cuz.  Four years ago, Erick arrived to Campur and began working as a teacher at the Tzibal school.  Shortly thereafter, he was promoted to School Director and began working with Peace Corps to develop sustainable projects in the community.

Erick is one of the few people I've known and worked with here in Guatemala that continues to surprise and impress me.  His dedication to his job is beyond anything I've seen at my other schools, and his dedication to the Tzibal community at large, despite the fact that he doesn't live there, is incredibly inspiring.

As construction of the bottle school began, Erick applied for and thankfully received liberation from his directorial duties so that he would be able to spend all of his time devoted to the bottle project.  And all of his time he did indeed spend.  In these past few months, there were often times in which Erick worked 11, 12, 13-hour days, either up in Tzibal overseeing the construction, traveling between Campur and the Municipality to solicit and schedule transport of construction materials, or helping me facilitate women's group activities.  Without Erick's work and devotion to the project, I can honestly say that we wouldn't have been able to pull it off.  He is one of those people that is able to make things happen, get things moving, and won't rest until he's finished what he's started.

Aside from this, Erick is the one and only male counterpart who I work with that doesn't make me feel like, well, a woman.  Erick treats me as an equal, and has never said or done anything remotely unprofessional.  Machismo just doesn't seem to factor into our relationship, and it makes working with him easy.  He takes me seriously, and he gets why I'm here and what Peace Corps is all about.  I rarely have to explain myself to Erick.  He just gets it.  A few months ago, for example, Erick had stopped by my house to drop off his spending report for the school.  I mentioned that the following day I was going to go into Carcha to purchase sand for the women's group pila project.  The women and I had worked out a deal with a driver to go pick up the sand from the mine in San Cristobal and transport it the 3+ hours to Tzibal for Q1200.  Erick immediately got on the phone with the municipality, talked to a buddy of his, and within minutes had it worked out that the muni would transport the sand for free the following day, along with the sand he needed for the school.  He made the trip to Carcha the following day, and by evening we had our sand, for a much better price of Q200.  He did all this without me even asking for help, and despite the fact that the pila project has nothing to do with the school (or his job).

Also?  Erick is 24 years old.  At twenty-four he runs a primary school, has spearheaded a half a dozen community projects in Tzibal (including a food security initiative, the Healthy Schools Peace Corps program, a reforestation effort, and of course, an eco-escuela), and now, built a school.  He earns no extra money, credit, or brownie points for these things--so much so that I've caught myself (horribly) questioning his motives.  The bottom line, though, is that he does it because he truly cares about development work.  He's even put off going to college (where he wants to earn a degree in environmental solutions) to stay working in Tzibal where he knows they need him and his leadership.  He once said to me, "I just don't understand why so many people from around here leave to go illegally to the United States. Sure, you can make more money there and send it back, but I think it's more important that we stay here and work to make our communities and our country a place where we can be successful and happy without leaving.  Sure, Guatemala has its problems, but I have enough to be happy here.  We just need to work on making the communities better."  And work he does.  At times he's stubborn, and at times I've had to tell him to cool down, and take a day off.  In terms of Peace Corps counterparts, however, this is best case scenario.  He's what the Guatemalans call "pilas"--somebody who's with it and knows how to get down to work.  And pilas he is.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

My best friend is a four year old.

This is Dilan, my best friend in Campur.  He's the four-year old son of my friend Olga who works at the small libreria I live above.  He loves my homemade granola, mandarines, and is frequently seen wearing shirts two sizes too small and miniature orange Crocs.  While his mother works her long daily shifts to support Dilan and his older brother (Olga has been a single mother ever since Dilan's father was tragically shot and killed in the municipality over a year ago), Dilan had gotten into the habit of hanging out with me.  At first he drove me crazy, just barging in at every moment, getting into everything in my house, asking a million questions a minute (What's this for? How much did it cost? What's this called? etc.), but after a while I started getting used to his frequent visits.  I got into the habit of keeping a few coloring books and boxes of crayons on hand, and gave him his own toy box to keep his things in while he is away.  We've kind of reached this comfort in our friendship, and he seems to understand that while I'm working, I can't play.  As I write this I'm swinging in my hammock with Dilan underneath, coloring a page out of his Transformers coloring book and singing himself a little song (I haven't yet been able to grasp the jist of the lyrics but the tune is quite catchy).

Our friendship is simple, but all the best friendships are.  I know his favorite snack is orange wedges with salt rubbed on them, and he knows that if my door is closed, I need my alone time and he should come back later.  I'm always learning things from him...words I didn't know, that oranges do taste amazing with a bit of salt rubbed on them...and hopefully he's learning from me, too.  And on my bad days, he knows just how to cheer me up.  I mean, it's not hard to do when you are an adorable 4-year old wearing a belly shirt.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Every last drop

Getting ready to sign the Acta
To say that life lately has been a whirlwind would be a gross understatement.  Maybe it has to do with the school year winding down, maybe it's because Peace Corps hasn't pulled me out of site lately for another worthless three-day workshop, or maybe it has nothing to do with anything at all--but for once in my service I feel like I'm on some kind of roll--things are moving, and happening, and being planned like never before.  And I am exhausted.  I'm so exhausted, in fact, that my blog has gone untended to, my laundry has piled up to a point where I've been alternating the same two skirts for the past two weeks (what is it about long skirts that they never seem to get smelly like pants do?), and my diet has boiled down to coffee, granola bars, and beans.  This exhaustion, however, is not necessarily the kind of exhaustion from which I want respite.  It's more of an exhilarating exhaustion, like that feeling in my legs after taking a really long walk or run.  It's an exhaustion that counts for something. 

Yesterday I had a meeting up in Tzibal with the Superintendent of the school district so that he could write an "Acta" to jump-start the process of certifying the school as a "Healthy School."  (After 4 years of working with Peace Corps volunteers, the school has adopted the necessary changes to reach this certification--the students' wash their hands before snack, brush their teeth after, have clean drinking water and clean well-kept latrines, the school itself is kept clean, etc.)  Before writing this Acta*, the Superintendent, Profe Alfonso, gave the compulsory speech in which he talked about all the hard work that the school has done, how the teachers have put in extra time and effort, and how the presence of Peace Corps has been paramount in reaching these goals.  He then said something that caught my ear--he said "Seño Hannah is here to represent Peace Corps, which has helped us a lot in the past. Like the other volunteers she's only here for a short time so we must take advantage and use her to the fullest now, while she's here.  Just like when we make orange juice, we want to squeeze every last drop out of her before she goes.  Every last drop."  All the teachers at the meeting nodded in assent, prepared to do just that--juice me into a pulpy oblivion.  Perhaps I could (or should) have taken issue with this--but I liked hearing it.  As a Peace Corps volunteer I've found there is a fine line between being used as a resource and being taken advantage of.  I've taken care to devote my time and energy to those communities, people, etc., who've made it clear that they're doing the former--that they understand that I'm a human resource to be used over two years, rather than a rich Gringa here to make some handouts, write some checks, and turn on her heels and leave.  One of my greater challenges in the beginning of my service was that nobody seemed to know how to use me--I was stuck here, in a foreign village, filled with foreign people, no schedule, no agenda, nothing.  Now, however, I'm suddenly in high demand.  People aren't afraid to ask me for help anymore.  And while sure, I have those days when I wish I could time travel back to month two, lay in my bed all day reading, and make market-day lists rather than to-do lists, most of the time I'm happy to be busy.  I'm happy to be exhausted, and I hope beyond all hopes that this roll I'm on keeps on rolling until July. 

*An Acta is a peculiar Guatemalan way of making something, usually a meeting of some sort, official and a matter of public record. The highest authority at said meeting hand-writes an unnecessarily wordy document, in the official Acta log, stating the business at hand, etc., then everybody present signs the document and/or stamps their thumbprint on it)