"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

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 B├ísico, 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."