"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, 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.