"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

Monday, June 27, 2011

On the Peace Corps experience, circa month 15

Another busy week has come and gone.  Between meetings, charlas, and Dia de Maestros (Teacher's Day) festivities, I've been keeping busy.  This past week I also hosted two Youth Development trainees/soon-to-be volunteers--Craig and Brady--so they could see what it's like to be a volunteer, ask questions outside of formal training, and get away from their host families and Spanish classes for a few days.  Besides pulling my thoughts back to the three-month hell that was Pre-Service Training, their few days here in my site forced me to reflect on my experience thus far--my life, my work, and my view of Peace Corps as an organization--and make me realize how much has changed in the past 15 months.  If nothing else, it takes a LOT to get to me these days.  My idea of a satisfying "social life" has changed from bar-hopping in Chicago with friends to sitting in a dirt-floor shack eating steaming-hot chicken soup without silverware, or coloring with Crayolas in my kitchen with 4-year old Dilan.  I find myself jumping up and down at the smallest of successes.  If I don't have tortillas for a few days, I crave them.  I will pretty much eat anything, cow stomach included.  I often wear the same pair of pants three days in a row.  It's now a battle for me to finish 2 beers in one night.  Showering is not a daily event.  However, I still love a good cup of coffee and I will still go to great lengths to satisfy my sweet-tooth.  I still get lonely and miss having a boyfriend.  I still can't bring myself to sit on latrines or seatless toilets; I am now an expert hoverer.  I still check Facebook far too often.  And I still have bad days in which I stay in bed, watch 1990's rom-coms on my Macbook, and eat junk food.  ("You can take the girl out of America…")

What's to conclude of all of this?  Life is good.  People are adaptable creatures.  Having the proverbial "Peace Corps experience" is worth the fight it takes to get there.  And perhaps most importantly, Peace Corps is a trade-off.  A give and take.  Jump through your fair share of bureaucratic hoops, give up a great deal of your freedom/individuality, become a number/statistic, be Flexible, Enthusiastic, and Patient and in return what do you get?  You get the amazing opportunity to immerse yourself in a culture on the government dime, gain valuable ground-level job experience and work skills, and be able to identify yourself with a reputable organization that has been positively changing the developing world for 50 years.  This, all while knowing you have the world's best healthcare and security to fall back on if you need them.  Oh, and 24 vacation days a year?  It's hard to beat that in the U.S. job-industry.

In a few words, I can't complain.  I mean I can complain, but I really shouldn't.  Because I'm really very lucky to be where I'm at, and life is good.

Sunday, June 26, 2011


Photo courtesy of Jareau Hall

Host country counterparts.  They can make or break your service.  Without them, forget about getting anything done.  As volunteers, we are change agents; we're here to act as catalysts for the changes that host country nationals already envision for themselves.  Without HCNs, the idea of sustainability is lost.  Unfortunately, however, I've found that many of my counterparts that I was assigned to work with are little more than totally useless.  That's not to say they're anything but extremely hard-working, smart, and capable people.  But despite these facts, they simply don't possess the time, desire, or commitment (or perhaps combination of the three) to work with me and get things done.  As a PCV in a community of thousands of Guatemalans, I have to choose my battles.  If Director X, after several meetings in which I've thrown out ideas, resources, and advice, still can't find the time to get the school's library up and running (despite the 200+ donated books graciously secured by previous volunteers rotting in boxes beside her desk), why should I keep trying?  I'm not going to waste my time pulling teeth when I could be better focusing my attention on projects that may as well be driving themselves. 

I've met two individuals in my time here, neither of whom were in that list of people assigned to me by Peace Corps, who have made my work here so enjoyable, so easy, and so rewarding, that I often find myself resisting the urge to bear-hug them.

Estela Xi Cul.  She started off as the translator and coordinator for the Tz'ib'al women's group.  She has since become my good friend, go-to person, and personal idol.  As a poor indigenous Guatemalan woman, Estella represents a most-inspiring anomaly.  She's ballsy, sarcastic, a go-getter, and a natural leader.  Somehow between tending her store and taking care of her three children and husband she manages to play the role of community leader without, of course, being acknowledged as such by anybody besides myself.  If I have a problem, no matter how complicated, she will solve it.  For example:

One of the women from the women's group stopped by my house and invited me over for the following day.  I must have been distracted with something because I accepted her invite without getting the woman's name or house location (there are 38 women in the women's group..I unfortunately still don't know all of them).  So the following day I go up to Estella's house and tell her "Estella, I know this is a bit weird, but one of the women from the group invited me to her house today and I don't know where it is.  I don't know her name either."  After laughing at me for a minute or two, she broke into problem-solving mode, and within 30 minutes of investigation (in a village sans cell phone service, I would like to point out), had walked me over to Doña Carmen's house just in time for lunch. 

Or take last week.  On Monday, the day after Nola died, I was up in Tzibal meeting with the woman about a sand purchase we were making for the pilas.  Estela managed to be the first and only person to immediately understand the implications of Nola's death for me.  At the beginning of the meeting Estela interrupted the women's typically giggly gossip (I had just announced why Nola wasn't with me) and scolded the women for being insensitive about my dog's death.  From what I understood from her Q'eqchi' tirade, it went a little something like this: "To Gringos, dogs are like children.  That's why Seño Hannah was always carrying the dog around like a baby, and bathing her, and giving her filtered water.  She was a good mother to that dog.  Therefore you all need to be sensitive and nice to the Seño, because she is obviously very sad.  Do you want to make her cry?  You shouldn't bring it up for a while because it will make her sad.  The dog was her company, she is here living on her own, all alone, especially since Yaro's left.  You need to be her friends now."  After the meeting she made me stay over for lunch during which she told me she understood I must be sad, just like she was sad about her oldest son (who two weeks previously had fallen into a large pot of boiling water and just returned home after 15 days in the Coban hospital burn-unit).  "Bad things happen to us, and nobody knows why…it's hard being a parent because things happen to your children just like with my son and your dog.  That's why you're sad, isn't it."  "Even though Nola was your compania here, I'm your friend so you're not really alone.  Now here, eat another tortilla." 

She's such a kick-ass woman.  Because take away the indigenous dress, the dirt-floor house, the language barrier, and stick Estela in corporate America, and she'd still kick ass.  I'm sure of it.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Dear Mom

Happy birthday Mom!  I ate a piece of cheesecake in Coban for you.  It was delicious. 

Enjoy your day!


Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Dear Bridget


Feliz cumpleaños a ti! 
Enjoy your day, girl.


Sunday, June 19, 2011

Rest in peace, Nola

"Be strong, Hannah. This is part of what it is to be a human being," my neighbor and friend Olga assured me as I wrapped Nola in a sheet and handed her to the man who, for 10 quetzales, was to go and bury her.  To a Guatemalan, my crying over a dog is hard to understand.  Dogs die here everyday.  What's more, people die here everyday.  Death is a part of life here, and people treat it as such.  Things happen, puppies get sick and die.  It's all just a part of life.  Even Dillon, Olga's 4 year-old son, who for the past two weeks has shown up at my house daily to play will Nola, didn't shed a tear.  He just quietly asked me if I could lift the sheet so he could see her face.

When I arrived home from a meeting in Coban yesterday, I found Nola curled up in her usual spot on my stairs in a pool of bloody vomit.  In a few short hours she had gone from being a happy, energetic, spunky little puppy to an anorexic and non-responsive one.  It being market day, I rushed her over to the Agroferia where Jaime, the veterinarian, could take a look at her.  He told me it could be parasites, hepatitis, parvo virus, or that she could have swallowed a tooth or bone.  He sold me canine antidiarrheal and gave her an antibiotic shot in case of hepatitis.  He told me he could bring more antibiotics within 15 days.  I took her home, and as the hours past she got worse and worse.  I've never felt more helpless...all I could do was to make her comfortable, try to force fluids down her throat, and wait.  By morning, less than 24 hours after her first symptoms, she died quietly on my floor, most likely from extreme dehydration. 

Nola's death has been one of the true tragedies of my experience here.  Not only because she was my pet, my companion, and my first puppy, but because she represents so many other chucho puppies that suffer and die similarly miserable deaths in this country.  And I couldn't save even one. 

Nola, I will miss you. 

Dear Dad

Dear Dad,

Happy Father's Day!


Friday, June 17, 2011

Dear Emma

Happy Birthday, little sister!

Hope you find that 22 is even better than 21.

Miss you, and I hope you are celebrating!


Monday, June 13, 2011

Puppies, patience, and prayers

Neighbor's son Dilan learning to pet Nola nicely.

When it rains in Guatemala, it pours.  The rainy season is upon us, and I must say, I'm happy it's here.  The cursed dust that has covered every surface for the past three months has settled.  The smell of drunk men's urine on the main roadside has been graciously washed away.  And at night, the rains bring in a lovely breeze that allows me to sleep under the covers without sweating through my pajamas. 

With the rains, however, come other complications.  Mudslides, flooded crops, contaminated water supplies...because when it rains here, it rains.  Just like, coincidentally, in my service.  Since Jareau (my sitemate) left nearly three weeks ago, my life has literally been turned upside down.  I moved into a new house, I adopted a handful of projects, I was finally able to facilitate my first teacher workshop, and on a whim, I brought home a 4-month old chucho (street dog).

Nola, my puppy, has become a true test of my patience.  She is, in a way, a replica of my Peace Corps experience.  The beginning is tough as hell, full of doubt, confusion, and lack of control.  But I expect that as Nola grows out of puppy-hood (assuming I'm able to train her along the way), she will be just as rewarding as my PC experience has recently become.  It's just going to take a few months of hair-pulling to get through it.   I still wonder daily what the hell I'm doing with her and why I decided I had the time (or the money) in my life to take on such a huge responsibility.  But here I am (or rather here she is, gnawing earnestly on my hiking boot), and for now all I can do is try my best to figure it out, maintain my sanity, and keep my shoes well out of puppy reach.

Groundbreaking ceremony

Which brings me to patience.  Puppies take a lot of it.  So does Peace Corps service.  But no matter how patient I manage to become here, I will never be Guatemalan Patient.  Today marked the ground-breaking of the Tzibal "Eco escuela," or Bottle School.  The community started this project nearly a year ago, and have been patiently waiting since then for this to really happen for them.  Between our evacuation in December, Jareau leaving and a few other unexpected complications, the project has been pushed back more times than I can count.  Each time, however, the community remains hopeful, in high spirits, and remains patiently awaiting the U.S. funds (thank you Hug It Forward!) that will make their bottle school possible.  About two weeks ago, I went up to the school and met with the director.  He took me up to the lot where the school is to be built and showed me a small altar of flowers, burnt incense and candles.  He explained that the previous night a number of village elders had held a Mayan prayer ceremony in hopes of allowing their project to begin.  That was the moment I realized how badly the community wants this school to be built.  It's not just the teachers or the parents with children who will attend the school that care.  It's the entire community.  And their prayers were answered today with the inauguration/groundbreaking ceremony, which also, incidentally, involved a Mayan priest, incense, and lots of praying (plus a Gringa with a pick-axe).  Because for Guatemalans, it appears that patience and prayer go hand in hand.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Blog-worthy, I think

I walked to the center of town today to buy a light bulb.  On the way, I came upon a bolo--a drunk old Guatemalan man who upon my approach promptly dropped his machete, then his pants, squatted, and started defecating in the middle of the road. 

It being Sunday, the store was closed.  I took the long way home.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

As you sow so shall you reap

It's the sembra, or the planting season, so many families are planting their corn for the year.   The Mayan belief here is that the men must go out to sembrar with "panzas llenas," or full bellies, or their crops will be eaten by pests and destroyed before harvest.  So each day of the sembra a different woman from the village hosts a midday feast at her house.  She and her sisters, mothers, and daughters cook all morning long and around 2pm the men come to feast on caldo--a typical oily orange broth with meat and vegetables--with tortillas, tayuyos, tamalitos, and cacao (a hot drink they make by crushing up cocoa beans and adding water, sugar, and cinnamon.)   The men stuff themselves and go out to sow, while the women do the equivalent of eating over the kitchen sink...they nibble at pieces of meat and tortillas while cleaning up.  It's a lot of work for the women, but they seem proud to be the hosts, and consequently, I have been invited to come "sembrar" with women from the pila project for three days in a row now.  Yesterday it was duck and smoked pork soup with tayuyos (I got there early and the women let me help them make the tayuyos...they all know tayuyos are my favorite), and today it was chicken and smoked pork soup with tamalitos.  The portions they serve me are equally as prodigious as the men's so I find myself relying on the Q'eq'chi' "xel," which roughly means to doggie-bag it.  You can't turn down food here, and if you don't finish it, you take what's left, wrap it in a banana leaf, and take your xel home with you to share with your family (or in my case, my neighbors and roommates).

My sembra booty. Some meat, tortillas, and tamalitos.

Today as I was sitting in the kitchen, wrapping up a giant chunk of smoked pork in my banana leaf, Estella said something about me that provoked a burst of laughter from all the women in the room.  I told her playfully, "I know you're talking about me, what did you say?" and she replied in Spanish, laughing, "Yesterday when you were in the kitchen with us making tayuyos, one of the men came in, saw you, and said, 'Look at her making tayuyos--she's a Guatemalan now, isn't she. She should be my wife.'"  I laughed and made a joke about how my husband will be the one who makes tayuyos for me.  They thought this was hilarious.  We laughed, finished wrapping up our xels, and went on our way.
I love these women.