"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, May 29, 2011

Stuff: some thoughts

Stuff.  Clutter.  Cosas.

Stuff is quite a peculiar concept, if you really think about it.  Stuff can be owned, had, bought, sold, gifted, stored away, kept, tossed.  Lots of times we use stuff to define us, show others who we are, how much money we make, and what we enjoy.  For this reason, some stuff is put on public display, and other stuff is hidden.  There's so much stuff, everywhere, and as far back as I can remember, I've wondered where it all goes.  As a kid I remember panicking at the thought that soon there would be no more room for all of our stuff, and we'd all be left to swim around in it, like in Strega Nona when her magic pasta pot fills the village with never-ending pasta.  Except that we can't eat our stuff.  Where will it all go one day, when we're not here to use, keep, hide or have it?  I've always had a bit of an uneasy relationship with stuff, and por eso, I'm one of those people that purges her closets, drawers, and desk once or twice yearly, to avoid insanity.  (I very much subscribe to the "Cluttered room, cluttered mind" mentality.)

A few weeks back I listened to an APM podcast about a Duke University grad student who, in efforts to save money and remain debt-free, lived (and might very well still be living) out of a van he bought and parked on campus.  He had everything he needed and more...a bed, a place to cook his food, and a roof over his head.  As I listended to his story, I found myself growing jealous.  I want to live this simply.  It would be so freeing to have everything I own, need, and use fit inside of a van.

Living here, I've seen how little some people can get by on.  One of my woman friends, Estela, owns two twins beds for her husband, her 3 children, and herself.  The first time she came over to my house, she was immediately taken aback by my double bed.  "You sleep here, alone, Miss Hannah? You don't share this bed with anybody? Why do you have such a big bed?"  This not only reminded me how lonely it can be to have a big bed to myself night after night, but commented on the pretentiousness of my owning such an unnecessarily large bed.  Because the fact is, I don't really need such a big bed.  Nor do I need three cooking pots, especially when my Guatemalan neighbor owns two, which she uses to cook for her family of eight.  After all, it's just me here...how much stuff do I really need?

On the reverse, however, Guatemalans can be huge pack-rats, when they can afford to be.  I've been here long enough now to notice the kinds of things people spend money on in my village.  And a lot of it, frankly, is total crap.  My friend Olga sells Avon, and I am constantly amazed at the amount she sells to villagers month to month.  And again, a lot of it goes back to status.  Coca Cola, Avon, Corn Flakes...these are big ticket items here that people are constantly dropping money on--money they don't have.  My same Avon-selling neighbor owns four Tigo cell phones, which she received promotional "gifts" for selling so many recargas (phone minutes).  I can't help but think that along with a lot of our refuse, America is also sending the worst of it's consumerist buying habits down here to Guatemala, which very well might be one of the bigger factors in keeping the poor poor here, and slowing down development in general.  

Jareau, my sitemate, packed up and left last week, leaving me his apartment.  So I am going to take advantage of my moving as an opportunity to adios some of my excess stuff.  I've bagged up clothes to donate to the pacas*, given some of my kitchen stuff to women I'm close with here in town, and gathered together a bunch of books I'll never read to donate back to the Peace Corps library.  See how little I can comfortably live with.  That's the challenge.  And, of course, in the process, avoid some of that good ole' Gringo Guilt.

 A paca

*Pacas (literally "bales" or "bundles") are the stuff-fearer's worst nightmare.  Pacas are bulk clothing stores (very similar to a Salvation Army back home) where they sell, at very affordable prices, clothing, shoes, and other items that come down here from the U.S.  A lot of the clothing is actually brand new (either overstocked or somehow faulty) and some are lightly used.  It's a favorite pastime of volunteers here to Paca shop and get great deals on otherwise expensive American brands.  Pacas, as well as the revamped Guatemalan chicken buses, are probably the two most apparent manners in which Guatemalans take and use America's discarded stuff.  One man's trash...

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Tajumulco, GAD style

"I'm pretty positive we haven't passed base camp already," I remember assuring the other girls as we struggled up the steepest section of rocks yet.  Well, we had definitely passed up base camp, and would soon find ourselves at the summit of Tajumulco, the tallest peak (at 4220 meters or 13,845 feet) in Central America.

Rey, Devon and I decided to do Tajumulco, as things tend to go in Peace Corps, at nearly the last minute.  Rey and Devon are two awesome fellow GAD ladies (GAD is the Gender and Development Committee of Peace Corps Guatemala of which I am the newly elected Project Representative for Youth Development, taking the place of Rey who will soon be finishing her service) and both from the Verapaces.  Since we all had to travel about 12 hours across the country to attend the GAD meeting on Friday, we thought we'd take advantage of our time in Quetzaltenango and do a little volcano climbing.  Most people climb Tajumulco with a guide company, but we decided to go it alone, mostly in the interest of saving money.  And luckily, we proved ourselves more than capable of surviving a night on a volcano.   

We started off early from Xela on Saturday, and made it to the base of the climb after a few bumpy bus rides and a stop to buy what ended up being an extreme oversupply of water ("better safe than sorry" is what we had in mind).  We paid a somewhat shady Guatemalan Q100 to drive us, in his pick-up truck that might as well have been held together by duck tape, up to the start of the hike, about 2 km up from the highway.  And off we went.  The climb took us about 4 hours, which is impressive when you factor in how slowly we were climbing.  It's amazing how big of an effect altitude can have on the body, and for me (I live at 2,844 feet), the altitude was utterly exhausting.  Five steps feel like half a mile when there's no oxygen to breathe.

Just around 5pm that day, we found ourselves at the summit, somewhat accidentally (we had planned on stopping at the base camp and going up to summit the next morning to catch the sunrise.)  But there we were, and with the sun about to set, we didn't have much choice but to pitch our tent and hope for the best.  And the best is what we got.  Sure, it was cold and incredibly windy (I didn't sleep much with the wind beating at our tent all night long), but we got a campfire going, watched the sunset, made bean tortillas and Oreo S'mores, and got in our sleeping bags at around 7:30pm.  And when we woke up the following morning, and stepped out of the tent, there we were, at the top of the world.  

We ran into a few hikers that had come with a guided hike and had climbed up to summit that morning.   "You guys camped there? Just the three of you?"

Sí hombre.

On the way up

Our serendipitous campsite

Exploring the summit the next morning

First, a safety update

In response to a few worried messages and emails from family and friends, I thought I'd give a bit of a Guatemalan security update for those of you back home.

First of all, I'm alive and well.  Really.

Last week's events (the massacre in Peten and the San Lucas bus shooting) were truly horrible, and definitely a bit frightening.  However, they don't define the state of security of Guatemala as a whole.  Peten is now under a State of Siege, just like my home of Alta Verapaz was just a few short months ago.  Once again, it's the Guatemalan government versus the Mexican drug cartels, and it isn't an easy battle.

Yes, Guatemala is a dangerous country.  Because of this, volunteers here have a lot less freedom than volunteers in other Peace Corps countries.  And sure, I worry a bit when I travel, but there's always a risk, no matter where I'm living in the world.  But if I've learned anything, it's that Peace Corps always errs on the side of caution when it comes to the safety of its volunteers.  There just wouldn't be well over 200 volunteers serving here in Guatemala if we were under any sort of direct threat.

In light of the recent events and the evacuation we underwent in December, I have my suspicions that Peace Corps Guatemala will be shut down in the future due to security concerns.  It's this possibility--the possibility that I may be forced to leave here before my service is up--that worries me much more than my direct physical safety.  I just want to be able to finish what I came here to do.  And I want my friends and family to come and visit, and see this country for what it really is, and not what it comes across to be in the news.

Guatemala: for everyone's sake, get your act together.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Road Conundrum

"Maak'a li bus."   I expect to hear this a lot during the next year.  These three words, Q'eq'chi' for "there's no bus," may very well become the bane of my existence.  There's.  No.  Bus.

My village is getting a road.  Not a road in the village, but a real, paved road connecting the village to the main highway.  This is very, very good news for everybody.  Nobody has quite been able to tell me where the money to build it is coming from, but I have my suspicions that it may have something to do with it being an election year.  Nonetheless, this road is a big deal.  A better road means quicker, safer transport which means more chances for business, for commutes to the city, and Dios knows what else.  It will probably shave about 20 minutes off of the hour and a half long trip to the city. 

The less shiny side of the coin?  Construction of this road will take one year.  Which in Guatemalan, means closer to two.  And because the dirt road they are paving is the only road into the village, there's no option for a detour.  Instead, the road will remain completely blocked to through traffic while the workers are working.  This means that if somebody wants to come in or out of the village, they must do so before 7am (when construction begins), between 12 and 1pm (when the workers are on lunch), and after 6pm (when the workers finish for the day).  This is the new bus schedule that I will have to deal with for the rest of my time here.  And to make things worse, because of this change in schedule, many of the village's microbus drivers have decided to switch routes and travel in the opposite direction of the city, further into the other villages.  Which means that, a lot of the time, there's no bus at all.  And when there is one, it's often so crowded that even a sardine wouldn't board. 

Pero así es, and I'll deal with it.  I'm just going to have to be even better about planning my traveling ahead of time, and expect there to be problems. 

Or maybe, I'll just buy one of these.

Dear Sabiha

Happy happy birthday Sabs!

PC Guatemala misses you...A.V. just isn't the same without you. 

I hope your day filled with buenas ondas.  I'll eat a piece of Casa D Acuña cake for you :)


Saturday, May 14, 2011


Junior high kids can be brutal.  This is no big news.  Giving junior high students free-reign to anonomously say what they really think about their classmates, and even worse--you, their teacher--seems like a bad idea.  Right?

There's a dinámica I sometimes use here with self-esteem lessons called "Respaldame" ("Back me up").  Each student gets a piece of paper taped to their back, and their classmates each write down something nice or positive about them.  Each student leaves with a list of positive qualities and hopefully a bit of a self-esteem boost.  That's at least the idea.

Today, at a special youth retreat organized with the village's Catholic Priest, Padre Elias*, we decided to do this activity.  But there's a twist.  Padre Elias ran this dinámica today (I was participating), and he changed it up a bit.  He instructed the students to write what they really feel about the person, be it a good thing or a bad thing.  Instead of boosting self-esteem, he wanted the students to see their faults for what they are so that they can change. 

[Side note: While Guatemalans tend to be extremely passive communicators, paradoxically, they have no qualms about telling it to your face if they think you're a flawed person.] 

So the activity came and went, and fifteen minutes later we all sat down to read what our compañeros had to say about us.  I was slightly uneasy, I will admit.  I know that my students like me, that's not the issue.  But Guatemalans can be blunt, and, well, I'm the weird Gringa that comes and gives them lessons once a week.  Who knows what they think.  However, to my surprise, I found myself holding a list of compliments. 

This is what my kids said about me:

1. Good vibes/Cool
2. Very kind
3. Friendly
4. Pretty
5. Responsible
6. Collaborator
7. Nice
8. Very pretty
9. Very responsible
10. Calm
11. You are very pretty
12. You are the best
13. Foreigner

And I gotta say, I was (and am) truly touched.  I get stared at, laughed at, questioned, hollered at, and otherwise tormented by students and villagers on a daily basis.  It's easy to forget that they think of me as a human when so often I'm simply The Gringa.  But apparently, when made to, my students do have some nice things to say about me.  And for me, that's enough. 

*Padre Elias is an amazing resource here in the village...he's extremely passionate about youth issues, highly respected in town, quite forward-thinking and tends to keep things pretty secular outside of the church, which makes it easy for me to work with him in youth development.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Thoughts on Guatemala, recently

- Being woken up at 4am by twenty minutes of fireworks orchestrated directly outside of your bedroom window by a group of hooting and hollering high schoolers is no way to start off Mother's Day.  Or any holiday, for that matter.

- Tin roofs, even when you're not directly under one, always make it seem like it's raining harder than it actually is.

- My shower never works.

- Scrambled eggs are always better when somebody else makes them.

- It will almost always rain on the day you wash all of your laundry.

- The Sun is one of nature's best disinfectants.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Dear Mom and Grandmas

Dear Mom, Grandma Mary, and Grandma Kay-

Happy Mother's Day!

As I've become immersed in this culture where motherhood is such a pervasive part of everyday life, I've found myself thinking more and more about what it will be like to one day be a mother myself (emphasis on one day).  In the process, I've only come to appreciate what an amazing feat of selflessness, patience, and understanding it is to raise a child and be its parent. 

Let alone how amazing it is that I have a mother and two grandmothers who are all three supportive of my choice to join the Peace Corps, who read my blog, and who still manage to send me letters, care packages, and Easter cards no matter where I happen to be living in the world. 

Enjoy your day, I love you all!


Wednesday, May 4, 2011

A watched bagel never browns

Most likely resulting from my current Michael Pollan reading spree, I have recently developed a heightened sense of my food experience here in Guatemala.  Now I don't know enough about agriculture to make grand claims about the environmental sustainability of Guatemalan food production (I do know that chemical pesticides tend to be highly overused here, but that factory farms are extremely uncommon.)  However, judging from my market day experiences and visiting locals' kitchens, people are definitely more connected with their food--where it comes from, how it grows, how to store it, medicinal properties of plants, etc.  (For example, a Guatemalan will NEVER cook up a pot of black beans without first adding chopped onion and/or garlic. I can never really taste the flavors of these add-ins, but found out later that both onions and garlic have special properties that prevent excess gas).

Also, I can safely say that foods here tends to be local, seasonal, and whole.  Sure, people eat Doritos and Frosted Flakes here.  But generally speaking, you have to have quite a bit of money to be able to afford such processed items in Guatemala.  Here, we have the reverse McDonald's effect: a meal at McDonald's (at around Q35-40) is extremely expensive compared to a meal comprised of whole foods bought at the local market (Q5-10).  If you're a poor Guatemalan, you really can't afford to buy or eat processed foods.  As a poor American, it's hard to eat anything but.  That's not to say that malnutrition isn't a problem among Guatemalans--it's actually a pretty huge problem here.  It's just interesting that in a developing nation such as Guatemala, fast foods (the same fast foods that are believed to be causing many of the major health problems in the U.S.) are seen as luxury.

On a personal level, I'm forced to be much more creative and interactive with my food here than I ever was back home.  Unless, of course, I want to eat black beans, eggs, and tortillas everyday.  Example: homemade bagels.

My beautiful sesame seed and plain bagels.

I made bagels today that I had long-promised to Jareau.  They turned out quite yummy, and were half gone in a matter of minutes.  But as I was sitting at his glass oven door, watching my bagels bake, I realized how true that old saying really is: a watched pot never boils.  There I was, watching my bagels bake, and I came to a realization: my life, and service, are flying by now at imperceptibly quick speeds.  I've been here a year.  Those first three, four, even six months were seemingly endless.  Painfully slow, at times.  But once I stopped "watching" my time so closely, and began instead to focus on my work and my experience as it was happening (living in the "now" is something I've always had to work at), the pace picked up.  And here I am, a year in.  And I couldn't tell you where these last six months have gone.  I wasn't watching.

Also, those bagels?  Damn tasty (and thanks to my patient fervor, perfectly browned).  Thank you, Chef Jim Berman for the wonderful recipe.