"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, June 19, 2012

Coming home

May 29th, 2012, 10:37am.  I click the confirmation icon, and book my plane ticket home.  My plane ticket to the United States of America.

Spirit Airlines, flight confirmed.

I'd been procrastinating this moment for weeks.  Possibly months.  I'd been working at Casa de la Iguana Hostel for a few weeks already and had no plans for when my month commitment was up.  Would I keep backpacking?  Would I go back to my site in Alta Verapaz?  No, I would go home.  It was time.  Time for me to see my family, my friends, and my country for a little while.  Time to start thinking about jobs.  And student loan payments.

It's embarassing now to think of how much hand-holding I needed to book that ticket.  Two days had passed since I announced "today is the day I buy my ticket home," when my manager at Iguana, Ellie, sat me down at the breakfast table and put her computer in front of me.  Katie, my new English friend, sat near by, egging me on.  Another traveler friend told me, over Gchat, to get over myself, to book the ticket already.  So I did.  I got over myself and I booked the damn thing.  After all, what was I so afraid of?  In this case it seemed that the known was scarier than the unknown.  So when that confirmation email came through I had a mini panic-attack, heart beating out of my chest, until Ellie called me over for a celebratory shot of Sambuca. Nothing like Sambuca at 11am to calm the nerves.

Over the following days the initial panic slowly subsided and I began to get more and more excited about the prospect of home.  Started thinking about hot showers, washing machines, green salads, and all the wonderful people I'd get to see.  Started to think about Chicago.  And San Francisco.  And how much I missed city life. 

Three short weeks later I landed in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, on my connection to Chicago.  Immediately I started noticing things, like how long the lines were, how incredibly unhappy the U.S. Customs officials always seem, how I was no longer a minority.  I went into the bathroom after customs and struggled to comprehend that I could now throw the toilet paper directly into the toilet.  I filled up my Nalgene at the water fountain and about cried.  Welcome to the USA: we have free, clean, chilled drinking water flowing out of fountains.  I went to the snack shack to spend the few US Dollars I had and immediately talked to the store clerk in Spanish.  Oops.  My plane was delayed, so I spend the next little while on a pay-phone hunt.  I found one, but it didn't accept coins (I would argue that this defeats the purpose of a pay-phone, but what do I know, I've been away for the past 2 years).  Instead I had to purchase a $10 (or 80 quetzales!) calling card just to place one call to my mom in Chicago.  I have 45 minutes left to talk, says the automated phone card lady.  Awesome.

Two delayed flights and half a Swedish crime thriller later, I'm home.  My parents put a "Welcome Home" sign in the front yard.  (The front yard, mind you, that does not include a bamboo shower-stall.)  My mom, upon giving me a once-over, took me immediately to the hair salon, then to the mall.  My sister showered me with hand-me-down clothes to replace my pila-tattered ones.  We got pedicures.  I ate salad.  And chinese food.  And falafel.  And ice cream.  I called the bank to see about getting a new ATM card.  After no more than two minutes the banker had canceled my card, gotten another one in the mail, and told me how to get a temporary card in the meantime.  It was that easy, and I wasn't charged a cent.  (On a side note, my new ATM card is coming equipped with "Blink," a new and exciting feature. Apparently, as this oh so friendly and cheery banker told me, "Blink" is a microchip that allows you to simply wave your card by the reader machine, so you don't have to worry about swiping it through.  I'm still lost on the targeted benefit of this, but I decided to leave the cheery banker alone and politely acquiesced to having my new card equipped with this new and free feature.)

All in all being home has been really nice.  I see-saw between feeling as if I never left, and feeling as if I've been gone a lifetime.  The little things will probably continue to get me over the next couple of weeks.  How efficient everything is, how everybody seems to be in such a hurry.  How expensive everything is compared to Central America.   How everywhere I go is air-conditioned.  In the grand scheme of it all, these little tokens of reverse culture shock aren't that hard to swallow.  The real hurdles will come when I start my job hunt, begin to tackle being an adult in America.  Nothing I can't handle though, right?  ...Right?

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Living Livingston

Check the tabs. Organize a drinking game. Do the room checks. Passports. "Buenos dias, Casa Iguana."

The hostel life.  I feel lucky to have landed myself a hostel job for a bit.  It's offered me a chance to stay in one spot for a bit, save some money, beef up my bartending skills, and best of all, learn about the inner-workings of a backpackers hostel.  So when I heard from the owner of Casa de la Iguana while I was still traveling in Nicaragua, I decided to get on a bus back to Livingston, Guatemala the following week.  And now here I am, in the small, islandesque Caribbean hub of Northeastern Guatemala where the water is as warm as bathwater, the fish is fresh, and the dreadlocks and marijuana a-plenty.

Two weeks into the job I've realized a few things.  One, that owning/running a hostel isn't as glamorous/easy as I thought; two, that living in the Caribbean is as awesome as I thought, and three, that my coworkers and I are the Slurms McKenzie's of the hostel world.  I think it's a common backpacker's dream to one day own their own hostel in some little corner of the world.  And working here hasn't changed that for me.  It has, however, given me some perspective.  Because the truth of the matter is that when you own or work at a hostel you become the constant.  Backpackers come and go everyday, but you stay put.  And if you happen to own a party hostel in the Caribbean, well, say goodbye to your healthy liver and hello to night shifts that go until 3am.  Every single night. 

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Bragging Rights

Blogger's block has really gotten to me these past few weeks.  A combination of not having a computer, the motivation, nor the inspiration has caused me to avoid logging into blogspot more actively than I avoid logging into my online banking site.  A friend I told of my blogging woes told me that my dilemma makes sense; for two years I've had a specific job, purpose, and topic for my blog. And suddenly here I am, pura mochilera, without that same sense of do-gooder purpose.  I've gone from being the lone gringa in a rural village to a life in which I'm surrounded by like-minded backpackers.  A gringo amongst gringos. 

So perhaps it's natural that I've had trouble blogging.  Nothing I've been experiencing daily as a backpacker seems to warrant writing about it.  Not compared to the crazy ups and downs and cultural stupefaction of my PC service.  But now as I sit pondering this, I realize that I've done a lot of things in the past two months that were exciting, new, and certainly blog-worthy.  Maybe I just needed some time to readjust my perspective. 

So here they are, some highlights from my travels (more soon to come):

Utila, Bay Islands, Honduras
Utila, Bay Islands, Honduras
First stop on my backpacking adventure?  Las Islas de Bahia, or the Honduran Bay Islands, named one of the best places to scuba dive in the world.  Utila, one of the smaller, less-developed of the islands, is the budget diving training center in the world.  Backpackers from all over go to Utila to dive, and I couldn't miss it.  I decided to go for my Open Water certification with Utila Dive Center, a 5-day diving course that educates divers on the basics of diving and certifies them to dive the reefs of the world without immediate supervision.  I had never dived before, barely even snorkeled, so I had no idea what I was getting myself into.  As it turns out, diving is amazing.  Once I got over the initial fright of being underwater and breathing, and got used to the equipment and the emergency procedures (what to do if you run out of air, if your dive buddy runs out of air, how to clear your mask, equalize the pressure in your ears, etc.) I found diving to be an extremely magical experience.  Floating along coral reefs seemingly weightlessly, seeing sea life happen right in front of your eyes, surfacing after a 40-meter dive and realizing what you just did and saw was of another world, was something beyond what humans should be capable of doing--it's hard to describe the experience.  I passed my Open Water exams and am now officially Open Water certified by PADI (a big thank you, Grandma Mary--your Christmas present funded the cost of my course.)  No doubt in my mind that I'll be back to Utila someday soon to get my advanced diving certificate.  It's too good of a thing to leave behind for long.  

Volcano-boarding, Leon, Nicaragua
I had heard about volcano-boarding through the backpackers' grapevine while traveling through Antigua and Xela.  So when I arrived to Leon, Nicaragua, a quaint and lovely (and oppressively hot) little city in the Southern part of Nica, I decided I couldn't leave without giving volcano boarding a go.  I was traveling with a Kiwi I met diving in the Bay Islands, so together we jumped on the back of a pick-up and sped off towards the base of Volcan Cerro Negro, the newest and most active volcano in Nicaragua.  The next 45 minutes we spent hiking up the volcano, toting the awkwardly bulky wooden volcano boards, until we reached our launching point where we donned the famous orange jumpsuits and goggles and waited for our guide's instructions.  Volcano boarding was harder than it looks.  Even though you're sitting on the wooden board (not unlike a sled), you must balance and steer yourself using subtle shifts in your body weight.  Braking is done by digging your heels into the coarse volcanic ash.  What took 45 minutes to laboriously climb up took less than 30 seconds to board down.  Despite the goggles and jumpsuit I had black volcanic ash in my mouth, ears, and matted in my hair, road-rash covering my calves from trying to brake.  Nothing a good shower and some antibiotic ointment didn't soon remedy.  And now I can say that I boarded down a 500-meter volcano at roughly 50km/hour.

Volcan Concepcion, Ometepe Island, Nicaragua
Nicaragua, much like Guatemala, has it all...volcanoes, beaches, cities, and local pueblos, all in one small country.  I easily spent a few days in the small cities of Leon and Granada, a few days "surfing" on the beautiful pacific shores of San Juan del Sur, and a few days relaxing on the lake, all without having to spend more than a few hours on a chicken bus.  I couldn't leave Ometepe without climbing Concepcion, a 1610-meter high active volcano.  I had heard warnings from other travelers who had already done the hike that the hike was quite arduous, but figured that I'd be alright.  After all, I'd already climbed the tallest peak in Central America, Tajumulco, so how hard could this one be?  Turns out, really really hard.  The 10-hour hike up the 1600-meter volcano began through encouraging jungle-covered banana plantations but quickly became an upward scramble up the sun-exposed and rocky peak where we scrambled, without grace, up the final 1000 meters of loose volcanic rock and ash.  About halfway up those last 1000 meters is when I started doubting my decision to join the hike.  I was exhausted, my body hurt, and my mind was whirling with the numbingly ongoing task of deciding where to place my next hesitant step, all while focusing on not being knocked over by the horribly violent gusts of wind.  I kept telling myself that this was Type II fun, the kind of thing that isn't in fact any fun at all while it's happening, but makes for a great story after the fact.  But then I started seeing the climbing anchors.  I remember thinking "People climb this using ropes and belays! Why the HELL am I up here doing this free-style? I'm no mountain-climber!!"  Despite my common-sense telling me otherwise, I pressed on, holding back tears as I continued the exhausting scramble up to the peak.  And then we were there, at the peak, and as I grabbed the rope that our local guide had thrown my direction (turns out that without this rope I surely would have blown right off the summit), squinting as my face and exposed arms where whipped by blowing volcanic ash particles, snot running down my face from the sulfur gases leaking out of the active volcano.  We could only stay at the peak for about 30 seconds before heading back down where the wind-force was slightly less fierce.  That's all we got.   Half a minute at the top and the exhausting upward scramble became an even more exhausting downward trudge, where every other foot hold proved unsteady, sending me to my soon-to-be very bruised backside.  But we made it down, and two days later, after the soreness in my legs had eased, I was glad I did it.  Would I do it again?  Hell no.

Refueling before starting up the last 1000 meters.

On the way down from the peak. Photo by Danny Page.

Volcan Concepcion

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Pura Mochilera

These are the days of change, the days of exploration.

Less than 24 hours after I rang the Peace Corps bell that marked the end of my time as a PCV and the beginning of my time as an RPCV, I boarded a night bus top Flores, Peten, where I'd begin my 2-month backpacking adventure. I've never backpacked alone before, and I vowed that this experience would positively frame my imminent return to the US of A.  I'm now two weeks in and having the time of my life.  Being a backpacker coincidentally requires many of the same "skills" that I picked up during my PC service--being okay with a total lack of privacy, for example, rolling with the punches, living without regular access to technology, expecting nothing to go according to schedule, and being open to having awkward conversations with strangers of all sorts.  Living oh-so-frugally and, of course, being a bit of a problem solver when the occasion presents itself.  So far, I am loving my vida mochilera (backpacker life).  I´ve met all sorts of incredibly interesting people (many of them solo travelers like myself), I've challenged myself to try new things.  And perhaps most importantly, I've learned that this life is not necessarily something I have to give up.  I've met so many people who have managed to build their lives around backpacking, traveling, diving, and volunteering while still having a career and a family and a place to call home.  The backpacking life is not glamorous, and it's not confined to the wealthy.  It's a life of penny-pinching resourcefulness, long and uncomfortable bus rides, and haggling for minutes over the equivalent of one US dollar.  But it's an incredibly exhilarating experience that I'm in no hurry to put behind me.

No es adios sino hasta luego

Goodbyes are the worst. These past few weeks I've flashed back to the more pivotal goodbye moments in my life--seeing my dad cry for the first time as he and my mom dropped me off at college; crying to my Catalan taxi driver as he drove me to the Barcelona airport after 10 amazing months studying abroad; standing at the head of the table at Aurelio's Pizza, tearfully expressing my gratitude to my family, friends, and loved ones for supporting my decision to leave for 27 long months.  All very different goodbyes, but the oh-so-familiar pit in my stomach has remained a constant. 

Just as my loved ones back in Chicago supported my departure and sent me off with love and best wishes, my loved ones here in Campur have given me farewells with similar grace and humbling generosity. My last week in site I met an onslaught of farewell 'palabras' from neigbors, colleagues, and friends, expressing their gratitude for the work that I came to do, their sadness to see me go, and their happiness that I would soon reunite with my parents and family back home.  To say it's been overwhelming would be a gross understatement. 

I find comfort in the fact that life is full of cycles.  Things tend to come full circle; its just a matter of recognizing it when it happens.  I started life in Campur with a power outage, an empty kitchen, a sick stomach, cold showers and no internet.  My time in Campur ended with the same.  My last 10 days in-site were surreal in so many ways.  Packing up my house, drafting blog posts on paper, and eating dinner every night with local families.  It was feria in Campur, which meant no classes, so my schedule was as open as it was when I first arrived.  But unlike when I arrived, my last 10 days were booked solid with meetings, farewell parties, and feria activities.  All week I had students stopping by my house to deliver handwritten goodbye cards, teachers hugging me and telling me that they love me and hope that God guides my way, local families sitting me down and feeding me one last tamale, one last tayuyo, one last plate of beans and plantains.  March heat had set in, causing my house to bloom with tarantulas, brown recluse, and mammoth cockroaches.  Two nights before my departure, I crossed paths with my first poisonous snake, which my local friend stomped to death before explaining to me how he had nearly died as a child from a bite from this same breed.  One day before I left Dona Margarita, the woman from Tzibal with cancer (see this post), died after an 8-year battle, and I went to my first qeqchi wake.  That last week in site was as emotionally jolting as I'd feared, and when I finally left that Thursday at 6am with Olga, Dilan, and Profe Erick standing watch as I rode off I felt a slight bit of relief that the goodbyes were finally over.

And then there was my send-off party in Tzibal.  It's no secret that Tzibal was my favorite community.  Working with the school and the women's group were the highlights of my service.  I feel lucky to have found Tzibal because it was Tzibal that first gave me a sense of purpose in my service.  The community has never ceased to overcome me with the level of love and openess they've given me. My send-off party was no exception. I was in the village, in traje tipico, for the long-awaited Healthy School certification ceremony. The ceremony went exceptionally well, with the message clear--we worked together to better the lives of those who matter most--the children.

Me and Dona Estela

The ceremony ended with a delicious lunch of Kakik after which most of the invitees from the Ministry of Education and Peace Corps headed out.  Estela popped up then, dragging me in her motherly way to the front of the room and telling me that she and the women's group had a surprise for me. So there I stood as some 30-odd women from the women's group trickled into the classroom we were using for the day's events, and lined up before me.  And then they began, one by one, to approach me, lay a hand on my shoulder, and express their thanks to me, producing a wrapped gift from behind their back. I stood there in awe, trying to hold my composure as the stack of gifts behind me grew and grew. And then Dona Carmen reached the front of the line. Dona Carmen has always been one of my favorites in the group, always breaking out into sassy Q'eqchi' speeches in the middle of our meetings (as one of the elder women in the group she commands more attention and respect, mother-hen style). So when she, done speaking her kind words of gratitude for the pila project, took my hand and put into it a crumpled 10 quetzal bill I just lost it. I had this flash of a grandmother tucking a $5 bill into one of those flowery stationary cards addressed to their grandchild and realized that these women were sending me off as they would with one of their own. I hugged Dona Carmen while she stood there stiff and uncomfortable (qeqchi women, especially the older generation, don't hug), crying and telling her how much I'd miss them all. Dona Carmen's was not the only crumpled bill I received that day, either.  Back home opening my gifts I couldn't help but laugh in amazement at the random assortment  of my going-away plunder--glass plates and bowls, cheap market silverware, earrings, caites (the indigenous footwear of choice), embroidered napkins, woven baskets, socks--I questioned whether they really meant for me to take it all back to America with me. 
The women's group, waiting to send me off

Presenting my photo collage to the women's group
And it didn't stop there either.  My last day in site, Estela and two other women from the group showed up at my empty, packed-up house around 5pm with my last and best going-away present--a live rooster.  "We decided to bring you this rooster so you can take it to Antigua and have a party there with your other gringo friends."  They had even thought ahead enough to bring me a box for it (airholes punched in the sides and everything).  So there I was, standing in my empty house, holding a live rooster (a sizeable one at that), realizing just how hard it was going to be to leave these amazing people behind. These amazing women who unknowingly honored me in the biggest way they could, by treating me as one of their own.

Accepting my rooster gift

Sunday, March 25, 2012

The end, the beginning

So here it is. Here I am, an RPCV, drafting the momentous final Peace Corps blog post. At the beginning of it all, when I was still drafting my posts on bits of scrap paper in my host family's house during training, I often thought about this post, wondering if I'd even make it through the 27 months to be able to write about it. And, in the optimistic moments, imagining my future self writing with wisdom and supreme satisfaction of having laboriously completed my service. And sure, here I am, I made it 24 months and I "finished." I have the signatures from up above that officially denote me as a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (RPCV). And no, it wasn't easy. And no, I don't have a sense of revelatory accomplishment that I once thought I'd have. I leave with the sense that I could have worked in my village for 5, 10, even 15 years and still not really finished. But I also leave satisfied, if for nothing else for the things I've learned, the knowledge I've gained about the world, about this country, and about myself over the past 2 years. I don't have any grand exit remarks on my work in Campur, because the reality of my service and of development work in general is that things will always be left unfinished. Sure, we got a lot done, but there's also that feeling that I could have done more. I just have to hope that the ball will continue to roll without me. I've left my footprint, and have formed bonds with people that I know won't fade. And I go knowing that this is, as ends tend to be, the beginning of something else.

What has Peace Corps taught me? On the ugly side, it has taught me to jump through hoops, to work the system, and to stay under the radar just enough. On the other hand (the hand that really matters, it turns out) I take away many pearls of valuable wisdom from my daily experience in my Guatemalan village. I've learned my true limits--I've learned what my breaking points are, and how I deal with stress, and sickness, and lack of control when I have no immediate support network. I've learned to entertain myself with nothing more than my own thoughts. I've learned to be humble, that failing is a part of life and admitting those failures and moving on is an important step for us all. I've learned that teaching is probably not for me--that it's not what I'm the best at. I've learned the power of human connection, of simple conversation, of awkward silences over cold coffee. I've learned what loneliness feels like. I've learned to be bolder and more demanding. I've learned to slow down. The list goes on.

Here marks the end of my PC Guate journey and the beginning of another. The PC umbilical cord has been cut; I find myself a traveler with the freedom to go where I please for the first time in what feels like forever. I find myself, also for the first time, a lone traveler with no other agenda than to explore a place, experience new things, and meet new people. And I move on knowing that despite its great imperfections, the administrative hiccups, the bad days, the frustrations, if I could go back two years I'd do it all over again; I wouldn't trade my imperfect PC experience for a perfect one. You take what you get and you run with it. If Guatemalans have taught me anything, it's that.

And with that, I'm off!

*I have decided to keep Cartas de Lejos up and running, despite my finishing Peace Corps. From this point on it will serve as a personal/travel blog, documenting stories and things from my RPCV life.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Tzibal: The next thing

Tomorrow I will be putting on my traje, perhaps for the last time in Guatemala, and heading up to Tzibal for the certification ceremony.  After five years of hard work and three generations of PC volunteers, Tzibal will be certifying their Escuela Oficial Rural Mixta as a "Healthy School" on part of Peace Corps Guatemala and the Guatemalan Ministry of Education.  The bottle school, the pilas--this certification is a culmination of all of this.  This certification will also be my going-away party, and will mark the end of Peace Corps presence in the community (at least for a few years).  It is in many ways an end, but also a beginning.  The ball is rolling in Tzibal, in more ways than one.

Remember when Operation Groundswell visited Tzibal last year?  OG, an amazing voluntourism nonprofit based in Canada sent eleven equally amazing people out to help with the construction of the bottle school and get to know life in a rural village.  Little did any of us know that the Tzibal community would win over the hearts of these eleven travelers, and vise versa.  The seeds of an idea were planted, and there began the planning process of "La Cancha:" a paved sports field meet covered community meeting center, all in one.

Thanks to the extremely hard work and devotion of a few of these wonderful volunteers (check out group leader Ben's blog on the project here), the Cancha Project has turned from an idea to a plan, and construction is planned to begin in April.  My leaving early has presented a challenge for the project, but nothing a little brainstorming and rehashing of responsibilities can't solve.  This project is going to be incredible, and come hell or high water I'm going to do my darnedest to return for its inauguration.

Please, all you wonderful folks out there, read the project details here, help spread the word, and consider donating to the cause!

Memory: X'Tamal

Christmas Day 2011.  I hike up to Tzibal to say a quick hi to Estela and give her kids a few Christmas presents.  I arrive after lunchtime because I don't want Estela to feel compelled to feed me, which she of course does anyway.  Estela explained that Christmas Eve she just wanted to relax so she and her husband and kids stayed in and hung out. She didn't even get around to making Christmas tamales, she told me, embarrassed. I told her not to worry, that I'd been eating tamales all day anyway and wasn't hungry.  She looked a bit relieved.

Meanwhile word has quickly gotten out that I was in the village, and people start stopping by Estela's kitchen door to request my presence in their houses.  Estela, like the perfect agent she is, makes the executive decision that I only have time to make one other stop, and that stop would be with Doña Carolina.  So up we climb through the muddy jungle to Carolina's house, where they're holding a special Christmas service.  In we walk to a typical Tzibal house: one-roomed wooden shack with a corrugated tin roof and a dirt floor.  In this house are maybe 25 community members, sitting on long wooden benches facing the makeshift pulpit.  Up front, standing in front of an orange wooden bureau topped with a plastic piggy bank and a vase full of plastic flowers are five men, all in the typical campo uniform: collared shirt tucked into belted colored jeans and rain boots, pant legs tucked in.  Two of the men hold trumpets, one holds a guitar, one mans the keyboard, and the fifth stands in front holding Li Santil Hu, the Holy Bible translated into Q'eqchi'.  And alongside these men, stacked halfway to the rusted ceiling, stand a full set of giant Peavey speakers, turned up to full volume, powered by the rumbling generator in the corner. The sound level is near unbearable, but I sit it out, trying not to think of the damage being done to my eardrums. What is it about Guatemalans and their godforsaken Peavey speakers?? I've often asked locals why the volume level needs to be so high, but nobody seems to have an answer for me. My personal theory is that they're attempting to shoot the sound up to God in Heaven. That really is the only explanation to having that kind of volume in a wooden shack with an audience of twenty-five.

The service ends and we're served tamales and hot cacao.  Estela and I chow down, say our thanks, and leave, going down to the Catholic church to meet with some other women. They're all in the church kitchen getting the Kakik feast ready for later that night. We stand around the open fire pit and chat while Doña Carmen fries up some chicarrones.  They start talking to Estela and soon find out that she didn't give me a Christmas tamale, because she didn't make any.  I quickly chime in that I came to visit for the company, not the tamales, but the women are besides themselves. They start calling Estela "X'tamal," or Mrs. Tamale, laughing all the way.  "X'tamal invited Qana Jana for Christmas and didn't even make tamales!" they repeat between bursts of laughter.  The women all lost it--this, apparently, was the funniest thing ever, and they laughed and laughed and laughed.  Doña Carmen burned the chicharrones because she was too busy laughing.  And I laughed until I cried--laughter is contagious after all--for the first time in a long time.  In that moment I felt such a connection with these women, in a wooden shack standing around a fire frying chicken organs, and it was the best Christmas I could have asked for.  I felt at home.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Giving words

We all know that old adage, "actions speak louder than words."  I had to look it up to find out that it was originally coined by a Renaissance Frenchie, Michel de Montaigne, but that's really besides the point.  The point is that this idiom is moot in rural Guatemala.   

In Guatemala, at least the Guatemala I've come to know and love, there's a very present tradition of "giving words."  Commonly in meetings, church services, etc., I'm asked by the attending to "dar palabras" (give words).  I've gotten pretty good at it by now, but still quite a bit more brief than my Guatemalan counterparts.  Guatemalans are quite flowery in their speech--a Guatemalan can go on about something relatively trivial for 10, 15 minutes without faltering.  It's pretty amazing, actually, and I often find myself awed by this Guatemalan skill (I'm horrible at impromptu speeches and have always tended to be overly brief).  Now that the countdown has begun for my departure, people are starting to "dar palabras" to me.  At my women's group meeting yesterday, for example, Doña Carmen decided to give me some words as the meeting was winding down.  She stood, faced me from her spot in the corner, and delivered a 10-minute long Q'eqchi' speech, no pauses, no eye-contact, no emotional expression on her face.  I could understand only a bit of what she was telling me, but I gathered that she was thanking me for my time, for helping with the pila project, for visiting her at her home, etc.  She sparked a chain of similar speeches which left me standing there, receiving these foreign words in a strangely formal way.  But that's how it's done here.  To "dar palabras" in Guatemala is to give something meaningful, to pass on a sentiment, to speak your peace.  Words here are the action.  Words are the gift, the good gesture, and the message all in one. Actions can't speak louder than words when the action is the words themselves.  Plus, words are free. And I appreciate that.  I appreciate that 99% of the gift-giving in rural Guatemala is either food or words.  A hot bowl of kak'ik and a nice little speech is far better than some silly trinket anyway.  

Although this paper mache going-away present that I received today from one of my English students was just excellent.

Back to packing up my house bag by bag and trying to hold it together. 

Friday, March 9, 2012

T-minus 16 days

March flies to a close, and with it my time in Campur.  My time lately has been a strange mix of the norm and the new as I continue to work in my schools and communities like always while simultaneously wrapping up my life here, piece by piece.  It's become my top priority to leave things here as well "ordenado" as possible--I'm quite possibly the last volunteer that this community will see for years and I refuse to leave without crossing all of my T's.  If nothing else I owe that to myself, to the community, and to those of you back home who have invested in my experience.

Luckily, those proverbial T's were relatively easy to cross when it came to the Pila project, the Bottle School, and my curriculum work in the schools. Some last minute meetings were had, some Peace Corps paperwork filed, but I can pretty much leave knowing that these projects are "done"--I say this relatively since it's a bit of a hope of sustainable development work that no project is ever really finished--projects can, and should, be in continuous motion, continuous progress.

As I've been running around this past month, busily taking inventory on my 20 months in site, I seem to have hopped on a mental see-saw of sorts.  Half of the time I walk around seeing everything through rose-colored glasses, enjoying each steaming tayuyo as if it were my last, taking in the scenery on the hikes I've become to know oh-so-well, tearing up as locals tell me to stay.  And the other half of the time I find myself thinking "it's time for me to go home." Home to the land of soy milk and yoga classes, the land where I will no longer be the lone Gringa towering awkwardly amidst a sea of Guatemalans (conversely during my rose-colored moments I wonder how I'll be able to handle the anonymity, the absurd wealth, the iPhones..)  And then there are those rare and wonderful moments when I'm somehow able to balance myself awkwardly in the middle of the seesaw--and I realize that it is indeed time for me to leave, but that's it's not necessarily the end.  I'll be back to Guatemala, just like I won't be going home to America forever either.  A chapter is closing, and another one beginning.  As much as a part of me wants to stay here forever, there's another part of me that knows that I can't--in some ways it's important that I leave, cut the Peace Corps umbilical cord for me and my community, push us to make the next steps on our own. My teachers and counterparts now armed with the textbooks, knowledge, and confidence; and me armed with 24 months of experience and growth. After all, it's important for locals to realize that I'm nothing more than a change agent--I brought ideas, information, and motivation to the table, nothing more, nothing less.  I've often heard volunteers talking about how they feel that they leave their PC service having learned so much more than they were able to teach. And in the immediate sense, I'd completely agree. But while I leave here a changed woman, I hopefully leave the community with small bits and pieces that five, ten years down the line will snowball into bigger things. I changed at an American pace, and they'll change at a Guatemalan pace.  Students I worked with may not be spouting off Youth Development information in their spare time but maybe, just maybe, that information will one day spark a potentially life-changing decision for them. Maybe, 10 years from now, they'll be the ones leading Youth Development activities in their community. 

Remember Any's scholarship?  Here's an update.  With the help of FOG and a handful of extremely generous donors back home we were able to raise Q3,612.10 ($470 USD) for Any's scholarship fund, about 56% of the budgeted goal. It was all looking very promising, and then we got some bad news. The school in Coban where Any would be studying filled up--there were no more spots available.  Distraught, we went back to the drawing board.  Any could try to enroll in a different school in Coban, but Emilio is the best.  So we settled on an alternative plan--Any would stay in Campur and study in Campur's small bachillerato program (equivalent to an associate's degree in the States), take weekend classes in typing and computer skills, and in another year, leave to study at the University.  As for her scholarship money, she made me a proposal--since the costs of her studying in Campur's Bach. program would be significantly lower (no need to pay rent, etc.), she asked if she could share the funds with her younger brother, Gester, who would soon begin in Primero Basico (7th grade equivalent).  I considered this.  The year previous I had worked with Gester's 6th grade class and saw first hand what an exceptional student he was.  Being Any's brother, he of course battles the same economic disadvantages.  So I agreed to her proposal, with a few changes.  Any and her brother are now both receiving small monthly stipends to help cover local school fees and school supply costs.  Instead of lasting a year, the budgeted sum should last for nearly two.  That is, if we can manage to raise the remaining 44%--$350.00.

How will the scholarship be managed in my absence?  I have worked it out with FOG and Any's mother that the scholarship money be placed into a family bank account.  Any will take out her monthly stipends from this account, keeping in touch with me via email and phone about her progress and any problems that may arise. 

So if you'd still like to be a part in helping Any AND Gester continue their education, please please please consider donating a small amount to their FOG fund.  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.

Thanks again for your continued support--I couldn't have done it without you!!


Monday, February 20, 2012

Pilas for Tzibal-Thanks!

Five weeks and counting. As the immediateness of my departure becomes a reality to my local counterparts, they've started, like me, to evaluate my time here. From day one, locals have taken me under their wing. As the resident gringa in a village of indigenous Guatemalans, they wanted to make sure I was safe and content during my stay. I was their gringa and if something happened to me, if I was unhappy, or lonely, or sick, it would be their fault, their public shame that they didn't take better care. Now that I'm leaving they're looking back to see how they did, self-evaluating by evaluating me. The result is a daily commentary on how I've changed in the eyes of the locals I live and work with. "You know how to walk now," Estela and Carmen told me yesterday, as we trudged up a rocky mountain trail to a baptism. "You know how to eat Kak'ik now," Margarita told me as we sat in the wooden shack on a log-bench, eating hot caldo and tamalitos. "You really like our culture now, don't you" my student Any told me as she looked around my room at the local weavings and tapestries I have hanging on my walls and covering my tables. As I find myself immersed in the utter chaos of wrapping up my service, writing up lackluster technical reports of my work over the past 20 months which often leave me with that pit-in-the-stomach feeling that I didn't accomplish enough, this commentary has made me feel a little bit better somehow. In many ways I feel that what's important isn't how good my time here looks on paper (because you can make pretty much anything sound good or bad on paper, let's be honest) but how it's viewed by the people in my community. And if that's measured by the fact that I can now walk up a mountainside wearing traje, rubber caites, and toting a banana-leaf of leftover meat, then I'm going to take that for all it's worth.

So I begin here an exercise of reflection, wrap-up, and evaluation. What have I learned, how have I changed, and what have I "accomplished" since arriving to site 20 months ago?  I'll start by recapping one of the projects from which I learned the most, and for which I still owe a great big thanks to those of you back home who made it all possible.

The pila project in Tzibal took over a year of creativity, patience, and many many meetings. There were hiccups, there was a bit of "winging-it" on my part and theirs, and there were a lot of delays. But at the end of it all, we reached our principle objectives: to provide 38 women with pilas, to build local capacity to use and maintain the pilas, and to empower the participating women through the planning and implementation of a small community project.

This project started way back in the fall of my first year, in September 2010. I was meeting weekly with the women doing cooking classes in hopes of forming a women's group and making some local friends. After one of these classes Estela, the leader she is, announced that the women had gotten together and come up with an idea. She proposed the project to me, hiked me up to Carolina's house where they showed me how they washed clothes with a rock and slab. I was sold. We wrote up budgets, a timeline, a Peace Corps Partnership grant, and waited. Meanwhile I continued meeting with the women and did talks on household budgeting, healthy food prep, and environmental awareness. 

Finally in March, 2011 I went back to site after the State of Siege and the money came through. But the exchange rate had changed and so we raised more (remember this?) Soon after, the first truck of pilas rolled up the rocky path to Tzibal. The pilas were hauled laboriously to the women's houses, one by one. Roofing sheets were purchased and distributed. The cement "planchas" or platforms were made by husbands and brothers and cousins of the women. Drainage ditches dug, filled with rocks and charcoal to prevent groundwater contamination from soapy water.

The project, as hoped, was very much facilitated by the women's group.  They organized a buying committee which went with me to get price quotes and purchase materials.  They organized the distribution of the materials (which was a significantly complicated task due to the pilas weighing so much) and checked in with me on their progress.  The women have become stronger as a group and more involved in the community (the women's group played a huge role in the bottle school construction, from collecting and filling bottles to putting in the bottle walls). The project wasn't perfect, and it wasn't always easy. But in many ways, it went along in the spirit of sustainability that we PCV's are always hoping for. At the end of the day these pilas weren't a hand-out to be taken for granted. The women worked long and hard for them, which assured me that pilas were something they needed and wanted. The project built local capacity and brought the community together. It is more their "logro," their achievement, than it is mine. And that, if nothing else, I can be proud of.

Thank you to all of you who donated to this project. A very special thanks to the Flossmoor Community Church's Outreach Board for their generous support, undying patience, and for agreeing to fund this project through thick and thin. Because of your support, 38 rural Guatemalan families now have pilas to wash their clothes and dishes in, and most importantly have had the experience of planning, designing, and managing a community project. I could not be luckier to have been able to share this experience with them.

Bantiox eere!!  
(Q'eqchi': thank you!)

Doña Carmen test-driving her newly installed pila
For more photos of this project follow this link: Pilas for Tzibal.

Febrero loco

It was right around the end of January when I started mentioning my upcoming birthday to locals. It's not that I was hinting at anything, but it just came up in conversation; my dad was coming to visit and both of our birthdays would fall within his visit. Besides, I definitely didn't need to give anybody more reason to question my single, no-children status. "Twenty-five?!" they'd say. "Twenty-five and you're all alone?" When I did speak of it to my closer local friends, they almost unanimously replied, giggling at their own hilarity, "Entonces eres loca, verdad?" ("So you're crazy then, right?")  I was missing something. So I asked Olga what she meant. "We say that people born in February are crazy, because February is the crazy month." Wonderful, I think, yet another thing to make me the crazy gringa. "February," she explained, "is the crazy month because the weather is so unpredictable. Some days it's very hot, some days it's cold and rainy. You never know what you're going to get. Also, February is known as the month of love, because everybody's falling in love, celebrating Valentine's Day. It's a crazy month." Hi, nice to meet you, I'm love-hungry and bipolar, just like the month of February.

Dad the ladies-man with the Tzibal women
This year, Olga's theory is holding up. Things have been crazy this month, myself included. Time has been flying faster than I can track it these days, in a whirlwind of work, play, and COS paperwork. My mind is constantly being tugged in all directions. My handy-dandy "focus on the now" mantra doesn't really work when I'm being forced to plan my post-PC future while simultaneously looking back on my service in order to write up my site reports. I came down with gripe (the flu) despite the fact that I'm NEVER sick in Guatemala (stomach issues aside). I'm stressed and I can feel it. Time is slipping through my fingers like the proverbial sands in the hourglass, and I feel like I'm on the verge of an ataque de nervios. Plus, as a friend so kindly pointed out, I'm now closer to 30 than I am to 20.

Dad's new retirement plan

Dad's first jumping shot
Backing up a bit, the beginning of February was a delight. Papa Gdalman came to Guatemala for a visit and we had a grand old time. Dad is a super low-maintenance traveler, so I didn't really do much planning for his trip (not that I would have had the time/energy to do so otherwise). In Antigua we stayed at the budget hostel that I usually stay at with PC friends, wined and dined at favorite PC restaurants and bars, took a chicken bus ride to Pastores (the Guatemalan hub of leather-working) where I placed an order for a fabulous pair of custom-made cowboy boots ("I'm not a cowboy-boot kinda guy," Dad claimed), and did a lot of bumming around the market. Then we hopped on Caesar's shuttle (we lucked out and got a private ride, if you don't count the tables he was transporting) and headed up to Coban where we spent Super Bowl Sunday in a slightly shady hotel before heading up to beautiful Campur. On Dad's birthday I dragged the poor guy up the the mountain to Tzibal to meet the women's group, see the bottle school, and eat a special Kak'ik birthday meal. He sat patiently through the women's group meeting and afterwards posed individually with about 15 of the women who were just over themselves with giddiness (apparently Doña Margarita got a little frisky during her photo op and grabbed his derrière). He remained unfazed when we jumped in the back of a pick-up to get back down to Campur in time for my English class, or when I showed him how to heat up his bucket-bathe. He fearlessly gobbled down street-food (Doña Ana's tayuyos) and practiced the little Q'eqchi I taught him on local families. He was a trooper, and it was a great visit. Happy 60th, Dad!

Dad took off on the morning of my birthday, but I enjoyed my day anyway. After the market I spent the afternoon reading and napping in my hammock, and that evening headed over to Pastora Isabela's house where they threw me a party complete with chicken stew and a beautiful chocolate birthday cake from Coban. After they sang the birthday song to me in three languages (English, Spanish, and Q'eqchi) Isabela gifted me a gorgeous hand-stitched huipil. I couldn't have asked for a better day.

My very yummy birthday cake!

That same weekend I headed to Lanquin to meet up with some PC friends to celebrate Alison and my birthdays and despedir (say goodbye to) Evan and Winfrey. It all pulled me back to the reality that I have mere weeks to wrap up my life here and move on. If only I had a clue what it was that I'm moving on towards..

Celebrating in Lanquin.

Monday, January 30, 2012


Three days of mind-numbing meetings, two days of bus travel, and I'm happily back in site, back to my routine.  PC/Guate pulled out all the stops at this all-volunteer conference--catered food, high-ranking visitors from PC Washington, open counseling sessions--we were even handed an extra "personal day" this weekend (nice try, but all I wanted was to go home.)  Am I any less pissed about the decisions being made in PC/Guate?  Nope.  Do I understand where they're coming from?  Sure.  Can I accept it and move forward?  Yes.

Here are the facts that led up to the decisions to cut Guatemala volunteer numbers in half and consolidate operations in the Western Highlands (as delivered by Director Carlos Torres, Peace Corps Regional Director for the Inter-American and Pacific Region (IAP) in an informative and honest presentation entitled "How did we get here?" I would like to thank him personally for speaking to us like adults):
  • Over a year ago, Peace Corps sent up a red flag about our region when their 2010 yearly portfolio contained alarming information about the safety of volunteers. 
  • According to Peace Corps safety/security stats from 2010/11, 1 out of 10 volunteers experiences a "serious crime incident" (SCI) each year in Guatemala. SCIs are different from "general crime," (petty theft, etc.), and include incidents such as rape or robbery with assault or weapon, etc. These stats do not account for those SCI's that go unreported by volunteers. 
  • An April 2011 World Bank study was released comparing homicide rates in Spain and Central America (the two have roughly equal populations). In 2006 Spain experienced 336 murders, while Central America experienced 14,257. Central America trumps Spain by a factor of 40.
  • Honduras was rated as having the highest homicide rate in the world by the UN Office of Drugs and Crime report released in October 2011. 
  • According to the all-volunteer survey taken in 2011, only 15% of PCV's in Guatemala feel safe when traveling.  72% feel safe in their sites.
  • Thanks to its skyrocketing homicide rates, the Northern Triangle of Central America was named the "the most dangerous place in the world outside of an active war zone," by the NYTimes, Christian Science Monitor and other publications in 2011.  
Director Torres also cited his recent visit with the female PCV who was shot in the leg during a bus assault in Honduras over a month ago. During their visit she told him that she had done everything right--that she'd done just as her Safety and Security Officer had trained her to do during Pre-Service Training--sit halfway back on the bus near the window, sit next to a woman if possible and if shots are fired get down under the seat and stay there.  What shocked Director Torres the most wasn't what happened to this poor PCV.  It was that in Honduras, standard PC procedure dictates that volunteers be trained on how to survive bus shoot-outs (they even do a simulation in which volunteers get on a dummy bus, fake shots are fired, etc.)  At what point, Torres asked rhetorically, do we say to ourselves "what are we doing here?" 

My perception of my safety remains the same.  I feel safe in my site, "safer" than I felt in the neighborhood of Chicago where I lived before Peace Corps.  I also know the risks I take when I travel, and I take precautions whenever possible.  I don't go where Peace Corps tells me not to go.  I carry my money strapped to my body when I travel on buses.  I lock my gate at night.  But the question isn't "what are we doing here?"  What we're doing here is development work.  What we're doing here is trying to make it better for the people that don't have a choice to be here or not.  Instead my question might be: who thought it was a good idea to shove 220 volunteers into an already-dangerous country where there wasn't a PC admin to support them?  Or why, in 2010--a year marked by nightmarish crime statistics in Guatemala--did they welcome my training class, the largest training class in the history of PC/Guatemala?  PC/Guate got overzealous and messed up.  My PC service is essentially a product of that mistake (the mistake these recent decisions strive to correct).  And at the end of the day, I can't really be angry about that.  If it weren't for that mistake I would never have come here and my in-site experience has been just too amazing to ever regret. 

What did I take away from this meeting?  I've accepted that I'm not going to change anybody's mind.  I've accepted that I'm being robbed of four months of my service and four months of my readjustment allowance.  I've accepted that I'll inevitably leave things unfinished here.  I've accepted all of this and am moving forward.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

"What's next for you?"

...the most terrifying and stress-inducing question that you could possibly ask me.  And I've been asked it two, maybe three dozen times in these past few days.

What is next for me?  Apparently I have eight whole weeks to figure that out.

Friday, January 20, 2012


Upon receiving the Peace Corps news tonight I cook.  I chop every vegetable in my house, I pressure cook some white beans, and I make a delicious pasta dish that I have no appetite for.  I clean up, tupperware my uneaten masterpiece, and sit down with my computer.  I talk to several of my closer volunteer friends, still in shock from the news.  I blog an angry blog.  And then I lay in bed until 2 or 3am, trying to quiet down the to-do lists running through my head so I can get some sleep.

I wake up at 5, wide awake.  I get up, make coffee, bring my clothes down to soak by the pila.  I tear through my laundry and some dishes all before Olga opens the tienda at 7:30am.  I clean up my house, sweep, then sit down with a paper and pen and starting drafting to-do lists.  I make four lists.  I feel a little better.  At 8:30 I start making calls.  I call Profe Erick who is distraught, particularly about the sports field project we had planned to complete in June.  I call Estela of the women's group.  I call my CTA and light a fire under his rear for the certification of Tzibal.  I walk to Naomy's store and tell her.   She tells me, "stay, and you can live in my house for free."  I seriously consider her offer.  I go to Olga's store and tell her.  "But what about Dilan?" she asks me.  "What will he do without you around to read to him and color with him?"  It's all I can take.  I go back upstairs, busy myself with silly tasks.  It's Friday so no classes today.  I have nothing to do and everything to do all at the same time.  An hour or so later Any, my scholarship student, stops by.  She looks worried.  "Naomy told me about the news.  I'm sorry you have to leave."  "Me too," I respond.  We chit chat for a while, talk about what will become of her scholarship with me gone.  Naomy stops by with her sister's baby.  We all hang out.  I'm glad to have company, and I think they can sense it.  Naomy has to leave, and Any, too.  "What are you going to do when I leave?" she asks me, again looking a bit worried.  I tell her I'm going to get back to my to-do list.  "I think it'd be better if you came to the basketball court with us. I'm going to run home but I'll stop by and pick you up on my way. So get ready!"  Unable to say no I pull on some shorts and my running shoes.  Any's back as promised, and we go play futbol on the basketball court with four or five of Any's compañeros.  And I have a lot of fun.  I forget my worries.  I snap out of the haze I've been in for the past 18 hours and I realize that though this may suck and be unfair, this is happening.  And I can either enjoy what little time I do have left here and play soccer with my students, or I can fret away my time complaining about administrative practices and other things outside of my control.

I choose to play soccer.

Now I just have to keep reminding myself day in and day out that this chapter of my life is ending for a reason (a reason a lot higher than some PC desk jockey tisk tisking over statistics).  With that in mind I'm going to pour my heart and soul into these last few months and do what I can.  After which I'll leave this village on a happy note, with the closure I need to move on to the next thing, whatever that may be.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012


I wake up at 5:30 to the sound of the table saw downstairs. My landlords are putting the finishing touches on their new house in the market center and have set up a wood shop in my backyard.  The carpenters they hired are super friendly and even slightly apologetic for the noise and sawdust that's infiltrated every corner of my life.  I lay in bed until 5:45, get up and start heating my bath water.  I change into my exercise clothes and do an Insanity video.  After I cool down I carry my water downstairs to bucket bathe and get ready for the day.  Dilan comes by, shouting my name.  "I'm out here, bathing," I shout back.  He comes to the door and shouts "DO YOU KNOW WHAT DAY IT IS TODAY?!?"  I respond, soap in my eyes, "I'm not sure, what day is it?"  "IT'S MY BIRTHDAY!"  "That's right, it IS your birthday. Happy Birthday! Five years old, I can't believe it! Come back here after school, I have a surprise for you!"  "OKAY BYE JANA."

At around 7:30 I make oatmeal and green tea, and enjoy breakfast while reviewing my plan for the week.  I get a text message from Peace Corps that the Standfast has been lifted and we can resume our normal activities.  After breakfast I whip up some vanilla icing and frost Dilan's birthday cake that I made the night before.  I stick the cake in the fridge and take my dishes down to the pila to wash.  It's cold and rainy.  I go down to Olga's store to chat and make some photocopies for my afternoon visits.  I eventually head back upstairs and spend some time checking email, facebook, and working on some lesson plans for later in the week.  Any and her brother stop by to talk about her scholarship fund.  We rework the budget and calendar, plan to meet with the Director later that day.  They leave right before noon, and I hurry around packing up my bag for that afternoon.  Dilan shows up, as promised, a few minutes later.  I give him his cake, sing him the birthday song.  He's thrilled.  I tell him that he's in charge and can give pieces of the cake to whoever he wants.  Five minutes later he's back with his brother and two cousins.  They all enjoy pieces of the banana cake.  Dilan asks for seconds.  He brings a piece down to his mom.  He insists I take a piece, too.  Suddenly it's almost 12:30 so I tell the boys that I have to go, but that I'll keep the cake safe until later.   

I set off for Birmania for the meeting I scheduled for 1pm.  It's drizzling and the path is muddy.  On the way I bump into Profe Oscar who's returning to Campur.  He tells me that he'll no longer be working in Tzibal this year, but at Birmania instead.  He asks if I can come help start the Healthy Schools program at his new school.  We set up a meeting for the following Monday morning.  I get to Birmania about five minutes early.  The primary school teachers are still there so they let me into one of the classrooms to wait.  I read for about 15 minutes when the Director shows up, seemingly surprised to see me.  "You're already here, Seño Jana."  "Yes I'm here, our meeting was at 1pm, no?"  He ignores my remark and sets about dilly daddling around for 5 minutes.  Profe Macario shows up and we can finally begin our meeting.  I re-explain the goals of the following 6 months, give them some blank year plans to fill out, and respond to their questions.  I'm surprised when Profe Domingo chimes in; he's really retained what we discussed last year at the curriculum implementation meeting.  I try not to get my hopes up too high; it's really up to the teachers now to start teaching this curriculum.  We set up a next meeting and I'm off, in the rain, for Campur.

A half an hour later I arrive at the Campur Institute where they're having the school-year inauguration ceremony, distributing books, meeting with parents, etc.  I hang around for a few hours helping with books and meeting my two Bach classes who I'll be teaching English to.  Around 6pm I leave.  It's still raining, and I'm cold.  Soon after getting home and putting on dry clothes Dilan's back, on a major sugar high, wanting more cake.  I send him home with the leftovers, telling him that he can't have any more unless his mom says it's okay.  I heat up some of the Mumbai Bhaji Pav Masala I made over the weekend (thanks to some amazing Indian spice packets sent by a good friend back home.)  I eat while contemplating the enormous pile of bananas on my table.  On Sunday I made a visit to Tzibal and stopped by Maria's house to see the baby and give her some baby clothes I bought on market day (any excuse to buy teeny tiny socks is enough reason for me).  She gave me a huge bag full of bananas in return.  I resolve to make banana bread later in the week.  And perhaps banana baked oatmeal. 

I clean up, say goodnight to Olga who offers to pay me for the cake I made Dilan.  I say no way, and that I still owe her a cake-baking lesson.  I turn in for the night, check my email again, and curl up with a book.

Saturday, January 14, 2012


My volunteer friend Winfrey sometimes describes certain events and happenings in his rural village as "National Geographic moments."  All PCV's have these; those moments that despite how accustomed you've become to the local language, food, way of life, etc., still make you stop and think "Where am I?"  Those moments that if you stopped and snapped a picture, that picture could headline an article entitled something to the effect of "Guatemalan Indigenous Cultures Impervious to Globalization."   Those moments in which I'm sitting in a tin shack full of indigenous monolingual Q'eqchi' people praising God, or sitting on a cramped microbus holding a stranger's baby that was passed off to me like a football.  Or sitting at a small table in a dirt-floor hut eating chicken soup with my hands whilst a live chicken pecks bits of food out of my mud-encrusted hiking boots.   To me, these moments are some of the most humbling, the most entertaining and the most inspiring, and are the moments that really bring me back to how lucky I am to be here.  They make me step back and wonder if our shrinking planet is perhaps bigger than we like to think.  There's so much culture, so much beauty that goes unacknowledged; so many worlds to discover within our own.  I fear that I'll have trouble being stimulated by a life free of these kinds of moments. 

And then there are the even rarer moments that I feel perfectly at home, despite the fact that I'm worlds away.  The moment when I'm standing in the smoke-filled kitchen shack with six Q'eqchi' women, helping them make tortillas, and they're treating me not like a Kaxlan (outsider), but like a friend.  The moment I soon ruin by asking about the small bits of chicken meat being fried up into Chicharones.  "What part of the chicken is that?" I ask.  "It's, you know, their parts," says Estela, pointing down towards her "lady bits."  The room, me included, bursts into laughter and the women poke fun at me for the rest of the afternoon. 

And then there were the events of Thursday.  I'm still not sure quite where to file these away to.  I'm not sure I can file them away at all.  Moments of human suffering that pull you so rapidly back down to earth, that turn previous priorities into frivolities--those moments are hard to forget.  Those moments when things get really real all of a sudden.

I went up to Tzibal on Thursday morning to check on the women's group's progress on the pila drains.  After the meeting one of the women, Carolina, approached me.  I immediately noticed that she wasn't carrying her son.  When I first starting making visits to Tzibal, Carolina's son was one of the first things I asked about.  He was over two years old but still unable to even hold his head up on his own.  He was roughly the size of a 6-month old infant.  He had what appeared to be severe malnutrition, and so I asked Carolina if she had taken him to the health center.  She quickly explained that she'd been to many doctors, even traveling as far as the capital, to no avail.  Nobody could tell her what was wrong with her son, why he wasn't flourishing as he should.  Over the months she missed many women's group meetings for being in the hospital with her son.  And he never seemed to get much better.  So when I saw her walk up to me, without her son, I knew.  She told me, breaking into tears, that he had passed away two weeks earlier.  "He was going to be four years old," she told me in her broken Spanish.  I wanted to hug her but didn't know if I should.  I grabbed her hand, told her how sorry I was.  She thanked me, collected herself and left.  Estela then pulled me aside and asked that I go visit two families with her; families of women who aren't in the women's group.  She explained that these families were both particularly needy and desperate and that maybe I'd be able to find an organization to help them financially.  She thought it important that I meet these families, pay them a visit, even if I can't help them.  I agreed, still in a haze from Carolina's news.

The first house we stopped at was Maria's house, a young mother who was recently abandoned by her husband.  Upon entering Maria's modest wooden home, she immediately handed me her two-week old baby girl, beaming with pride.  She left to tend to something in the kitchen, leaving me standing in her living room with the most beautiful baby I've ever seen (I'd never before held such a recent newborn).  This little girl, who Maria had not yet named, weighed about as much as a bag of cottonballs, and immediately dozed off in my arms.  Maria, who looked to be about 15 years old, returned and told me, via Estela, that her husband had run off with another woman, abandoning her with the baby and leaving her with almost nothing and no real way to make money.  Meanwhile my gaze was permanently affixed to this tiny thing in my arms, this tiny life with what already looked like a very difficult future, and I couldn't help but tear up.  Estela thought it time to go, so I reluctantly handed the baby back to her mother and on we went to the next house.  On the way a few other women from the women's group met up with us in the road, toting bags of sugar and cans of juice.  We left the road and climbed the steep muddy embankment that led us to the modest shack of Margarita and her family.  I was led into a small room in the back of the house where Margarita lay on her deathbed, a wooden bed frame with only a small straw mat as a mattress.  Hanging from a ceiling beam was a makeshift IV delivering her fluids through a vein in her wrist.  She was covered in a few ratty blankets, with an old shirt covering her face.  Only her arm with the IV was exposed.  Lining the walls of the small room sat several women from the community.  Nobody spoke.  Margarita's brother approached me to tell me her story.  Eight years ago she had a small bump form under her eye.  Over time the bump grew larger and larger until the entire side of her face was swollen.  She sought medical care and was sent to Antigua and diagnosed with cancer.  The doctors said that they would operate and remove the tumor, but only after she received seven treatments of chemotherapy, each which would cost her Q800.  Unable to pay for the chemotherapy, she returned home untreated.  The tumor progressed and now covers both sides of her face, making it nearly impossible for her to see, speak, eat, or drink.  She's ashamed of how she looks so she stays in, covers her face when visitors call.  With nothing else to do, the family much watch her slowly deteriorate.  She is 45 years old, with two young daughters.  Her husband later told me that they've spent thousands of quetzales on doctors' visits and traditional healers.  Neither daughter will attend school this year due to lack of money.  The women who accompanied Estela and I gave their bags of sugar and juice to Margarita's husband as offerings to the family.  A prayer was said, and we left.

I was in a daze after those visits.  It was around noon when I walked the half hour down to my house, and I immediately got in bed and slept for two hours.  I woke up feeling helpless, sad, and emotionally drained.  These moments weren't National Geographic Moments at all.  On the contrary.  Instead of painting a pretty picture of a far-off place with far-off customs and far-off problems, these people's hardships highlighted how their lives are indelibly linked to my own.  They made me stare the bleak, ugly reality of suffering--a suffering that is commonplace here--in the face.  Their problems are real, and their problems are now, and their problems are a direct result of their situations.  What if Margarita could have paid for her chemo treatments?  And Carolina could have found doctors to properly diagnose and care for her son?  And Maria could have stayed in school, learned a skill, and had children later in life?  I'm not sure what I can do to help Carolina, Maria and Margarita's families.  I'm not here to give hand-outs, after all.  I'm left feeling helpless and disheartened, ashamed that just yesterday I was complaining about a meeting being rescheduled, about the rainy weather.  These are the perspective-giving moments that really challenge me to maintain optimism and conviction in what we're doing here, wonder if it's enough, if it's enough to simply have shared these moments with these people, even if I can't work miracles.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

El Salvador

It's 2012.  Can't really say that I know where the time has gone, but here we are, me with a mere six months left in my PC service, and only one month left in my 24th year.

For New Year's I traveled to El Salvador with four fellow PCV's, two of whom are my neighbors down in Baja Verapaz.  The trip was graciously planned by one of the girls in the group, so I was happily along for the ride, and of course, the papusas.  Some journal entries from the trip:

December 28, Antigua, Guatemala:
Tonight we had dinner with Bethany, an RPCV from South Africa who is traveling through Guatemala with her husband, Mykel.  They were great, but most refreshing of all was her ongoing zeal and enthusiasm about her experiences as a PCV.  We all exchanged PC stories of crazy bus rides, cross-cultural mishaps and admin frustrations over a 2-for-1 sushi dinner.  At one point in the night--and this stuck with me--while Bethany was in the bathroom, one of us apologized to Mykel, saying that he must be bored stiff from hearing about Peace Corps all night long.  He replied, chuckling, "When we first met it was all she talked about for, like, six months. But it's been a while since, and it's really great to see her get talking about it again with you guys. I haven't seen her glow like this in a while."  This got me thinking, in spite of all the PC problems happening here in Central America, that my time here--the things that are right now my life, my work, my ups and downs, will soon enough become stories that I'll be telling for the rest of my life. 

December 29, Tacuba, El Salvador:

The last waterfall was around 60 meters tall. 
(We jumped from the small cliff on the right.)  

The waterfall trek today was such a rush.  Recap of the morning: We wake up early, pile into a rickety pickup that drives us to the beginning of this so-called waterfall hike.  (From the information we gathered yesterday from other travelers, we will both hike to and then jump down seven waterfalls, each one higher than the last.  The guide brings repelling equipment for those who don't want to jump the higher falls.)  The road is rough on the way out, and when we finally pull to a stop on the side of the rocky dirt road, I'm relieved to stand up and get moving.  We hike down about 40 minutes to the first falls, and all of a sudden there we were, stripping off our clothes to pack into the dry sack, and standing on the rough cliff overlooking a beautiful waterfall, preparing to jump into the deep, icy cold water.  The guide made the males in our group jump first; at first I was irked by his machismo of electing the "big strong men" to go first, but in the end I was a bit relieved that I wasn't the test dummy.  At each cliff, the guide would show us where to place our feet, then with a toss of a small stone, demonstrate the desired trajectory we would need to accomplish with our bodies as not to fall to our deaths on the jagged rocks directly below the cliff.  Somehow between my worrying so much about launching my body far enough out into the water and fighting off the icy cold that was racing through my veins, I seemed to completely forget about the fact that I was hurling myself off a 20-40ft cliff into dark waters.  The height never got to me.  It was a pure rush, and such a blast. 

December 31, San Salvador 

Out for Mexican near our hostel.
Today we took a tour of the city, as best we could on limited time and a national holiday.  We hit the central market which was by far the largest market I've seen in Central America.  It was an attack on the senses to say the least--so many sights and smells, so many vendors yelling our their vegetable prices, and so many shoppers.  El Salvador uses the US Dollar, and it took me a good while to figure out that "A KWAA-TUH" meant 25 cents, or, "a quarter."  We didn't last long at the market (I had just enough time to find out that a pound of tomatoes costs 25 cents), and after ducking into a few of the cathedrals around the center, hopped a cab to the Zona Rosa, one of the more developed, wealthier parts of the city.  And wealthy it was, complete with Nine West, Longchamp, and a Hilton.  It was all very Florida to me. 

Some modern art at the MARTE.
We avoided the stores and went to MARTE instead, the Museo del Arte Salvadoreño.  It was amazing to wander through an art museum again--felt like I was back at home, back in Europe even.  Definitely worth the $1.50 entrance fee.

January 1, El Tunco
After a hellishly long and sweaty chicken bus ride, we arrived at the surfer beach town of El Tunco, located right outside of Puerto La Libertad, just in time to watch the sunset on the beach.  The beach was just what I needed to pull myself out of the citified daze I'd fallen into in San Salvador.  The shopping malls, fancy night clubs, taxi rides--all the excess--it was quite overwhelming for me.  I suppose this is what I should expect upon my imminent return to the U.S.  The consumerism, the wealth, the excess, and the resulting guilt--it all just became too much.  But whatever the city did to me, the beach soon reversed as I sat on the beautiful black sand beach watching the equally beautiful surfers ride the ocean waves.  I really do love everything about the beach--the hot hot heat, the smell of the fishy salty waters, the laid-back vibe of everyone and everything.  I could have stayed in El Tunco for a long, long while.

Sunday, January 1, 2012


What is it about a new year that makes people yearn for change, to turn over a new leaf?  It's just a bigger number on the calendar, after all, another 365-day cycle that's now in the past.  I'm not sure if it's just western culture that's so drawn to the concept of starting fresh, with a blank slate, but I think that has a lot to do with the appeal of a new year.  Erase the past and start fresh.  Lose those pesky pounds, give more to charity, floss--become a new and improved you.  It's a lovely idea, and I must say, unwrapping my blank 2012 day-planner was a beautiful experience.  But as I've grown up I've become less inclined to make myself big promises, less inclined to "start fresh."  The past is there to stay, after all; without it we would just make the same mistakes over and over and over again.  I am who I am and that's not going to change.  All I can hope to do is to continue to learn and grow and become a better, wiser version of myself.  Because I'll be the first to admit that I have a long way to go.

One of the beauties of Peace Corps has been the experience of watching myself change.  And I can't say whether I can attribute this change fully to the "PC experience," or if PC also happened to occur at a pivotal point in my adulthood when I'm really starting to see my life unfold, see myself as a "grown-up" (I'm not a grown-up yet. Like I said before, I have many things to learn. Like how to do my taxes, for example.)  But in these past 21 months of this Montaña Rusa Guatemalteca I've learned a lot about myself.  I've spent more time with myself than ever before.  And in so doing, I actually saw myself change. 

I'm not going to share all my New Years Resolutions because, well, they're personal. 
  • Remember that it's okay to slow down, and live accordingly.
  • Learn to play the Ukelele.
  • Learn French.
  • Keep making time to read books.
  • Be happy with what I already have. Also, if it's not broken, don't fix it.  
  • Focus.
  • Continue to surround myself with positive people who make me happy and who share my passions.