"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

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!!