"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

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.