"If you have come here to help me, then you are wasting your time. But if you have come here because your liberation is bound up in mine, then let us work together" -Lilla Watson, Aboriginal Activist

Monday, 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.