Friday, December 17, 2010

On the eve of vacation in the US

December 6 was the 11-month anniversary of our arrival here in Guate! Crazy. Here in site I've passed my first July 4th, my first birthday, my first Halloween, and my first Thanksgiving away from the US. I've also passed my first Semana Santa, my first Guatemalan summer, my first feria, my first Guatemalan Independence Day, and my first All Saints' Day - ever. (That's the beauty of Peace Corps - you get to celebrate twice the number of holidays!) I've painted gourds, adorned graves, made Thanksgiving dinner - with cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie! - kept a "countdown chain" like a 6-year-old, sung Advent carols over a candle wreath, baked Christmas sugar cookies. Sharing all of these little traditions - new or old - mine or others' - has been special for me, given me that sense of community and place which is so crucial.

The recent holidays have given me a lot of time to reflect on the purpose and evolution of tradition, both in my own life and for people generally. I live with an Adventist host family that doesn't celebrate traditional holidays, and while I respect them for their strong convictions, I realize that the holidays I celebrated as a kid will always be important to me. I went back and forth a little awhile about whether or not to go home, but ultimately I decided I would. I love my host family, and the commercialism at Christmas turns me off too, but the idea of missing Christmas at home was blatantly unappealing. I am really glad I made that choice.

You can share your traditions with people who are knowing them for the first time, or create a new tradition for the first time, but I think it's a whole other level to share those traditions with the people you've always shared them with. That's not to say new traditions can't be created with those you care about, but to the extent I can celebrate childhood traditions with the people who accompanied me in my childhood, the greater the abundance of joy in my life. To be in the same place, with the same decorations, the same food, the same people. Not to say that new traditions or people can't be included, but I realize that Christmas at home gives me a profound sense of belonging, a profound sense of security, a profound sense that the world has continuity. It's hard to describe.

This will be the longest vacation I've taken since starting Peace Corps, and my first visit to the US - so I expect it will be tough in some ways to come back. At the same time I feel I'm much more integrated with my community and my work at this point than I was before - and I think there will plenty of people and things that I miss about here when I'm home - tamalitos, my little host siblings, friends, etc. There is plenty for me here in Guatemala; you can just never tell how it's going to balance out in your heart, is the thing. I'll keep the blog updated on the subject!

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Peace Corps Guatemala Packing List

It's that time again - just one month until another group of volunteers arrive here in Guate, the group that will arrive on my group's one-year anniversary in country! To mark the occasion, I'd thought I'd offer a few packing tips to those who might be reading.

First of all, you don't need to prepare to be out in the middle of nowhere for two years straight, nor buy a bunch of fancing camping gear and clothes. Guatemala is a very commercialized country, and most sites are comparatively not too rustic. Almost all volunteers have electricity and are within three hours of a supermarket/commercial center with products very much like those you'd buy in the US. Some are farther out, but still have more access to supermarkets and such than you would in, say, Mali.

Quality used clothing (paca) is cheap and abundant throughout Guatemala, and during training you have the chance to drop by the paca in Antigua's market. There's also a supermarket called Bodegonia for toiletries and such.

There is some stuff that is more expensive or non-existent here: electronics (computers, cameras), outdoor gear, some footwear, speciality toiletries. If needed, I'd stock up on that stuff before coming here.

My advice:

(1) Clothes: You may end up in a hot, temperate, or cold site, but in training days are warm and nights are cool or cold. Guatemalans dress up for business or family occasions, but for hanging out or going shopping or around town you can wear whatever (within reason). If you have doubts about a clothing item, leave it, cos if it turns out you do need it you can find an equivalent in the used clothing stores (paca). I'd bring:

  • Two week supply of underwear
  • 3-4 + outfits just to hang out or hike or mess around in - jeans, shorts, capris, t-shirts (long and short-sleeve), tank tops, casual skirts/dresses
  • 2-3 business casual outfits to wear to the Peace Corps office (whether you'll need them in site depends)
  • 1-2 going-out outfits if that's your thing (women get really dressed up here; men can get away with jeans and a collared shirt)
  • bathing suit (hot springs, ocean, who knows?)
  • comfortable pajamas
  • 2-3 hoodies, fleeces, or sweaters; hat; gloves

You can always buy warmer or skimpier clothes depending on your site.

(2) Footwear: Strappy sandals, flats (closed or open-toe), or heels are standard for women in business and public generally. For work, I wear hiking sneakers or flats. For hanging out or around town, I wear hiking sneakers, Chacos or flip-flops. I usually tend to be a bit underdressed but it works. Men tend to wear dress shoes in business contexts. You can find some shoes in paca but it's hit or miss for sizes larger than womens' 8 or mens' 10.

(3) Raingear: I have a thick rainshell which is useful up here in the Highlands - it's freezing when it rains! - but not totally essential. In hotter parts of Guate, rainshells can be stifling hot. If you don't have a rainshell already, you can buy big umbrellas here which work fine anywhere except on the trail. If you anticipate doing a lot of hiking or fieldwork and don't have a functional rainshell, you will want to buy one.

(4) Toiletries: You can find more or less whatever mainstream stuff you'd find in a US pharmacy or supermarket, and Peace Corps gives floss, cheap sunscreen, etc. It's hard to find biodegradable or herbal soaps or toothpastes (e.g. Dr. Brunner's, Tom's) or good facial sunscreen. Pack a good supply of that stuff if you are picky. Otherwise bring just enough toiletries to get you through the first few weeks of training.

(5) Glasses vs. contacts: I gave up my contacts when I came here just because I didn't want the additional hassle or expense, but contact solution is not hard to find in larger cities.

(6) For women: Peace Corps provides plentiful Tampax tampons, and you can easily find pads in the corner stores. That said, trash management is non-existent here and I highly recommend the Diva Cup, supplemented with Glad Rags if you are worried about leakage or not into tampons. The money and trash you'll save really adds up. But give them a test run before leaving the US.

(8) Cell phone: [edit 12.12.2010] It turns out that Peace Corps cut a deal with Tigo and will be issuing contract cell phones to all volunteers starting later this month. Now we'll have free calls to other volunteers and PC staff, plus additional minutes nationally and internationally. Sounds like it should be a pretty sweet deal, but if you want to keep a second phone, tri-band phones from the US will work here. You just need to buy a Guatemalan SIM card (Tigo or Claro).

(9) Memory stick: A USB drive is useful for working/printing in Internet cafes or the Peace Corps office, especially during training. You can also easily find them for sale here if you have a need.

(10) Laptops: Most volunteers have computers. I went the first six months without, but then I got a used netbook sent from home and it's been great. (Computers and electronics generally are more expensive here than they are in the US, so take that into account.) Without it, getting work done was more difficult, I spent more money on Internet cafes and phone calls, and I was also a lot lonelier at night. Most volunteers have Tigo Internet reception in their sites, and I also got the Tigo cell phone modem to use Skype and check e-mail, which has worked out great for keeping in touch cheaply. Some volunteers love watching DVDs at night, so you might consider an external drive if you're one of those people and your laptop doesn't have one.

A note about electronics: Generally speaking, if you use your computer, I-pod, or camera all the time in the US, you will probably feel better having them in Guatemala, too. It can be a good challenge to go without, but keep in mind that the happier you are, the more professional and productive you will probably be. It's definitely a personal choice though. It's nice too to not have to worry about taking care of a bunch of stuff but a laptop is super-useful for work.

(11) Surge protector: This is a good idea if you have a computer, electricity is often unreliable and you don't want to fry your computer. They can be purchased here but are more expensive than in the US.

(12) Camera: I have a cheap digital camera I bought used in the states, other friends brought digital SLRs. I'm content to have a lower-end camera I can drag around everywhere and not worry about (after all, with digital these days, good photos are way more about composition than equipment!). Photos are popular with host families and digital developing is readily available here. A small card reader is useful if your laptop doesn't have one.

(13) I-pod: Some people swear by theirs for sanity.

(14) Headlamp: For black-outs, camping, hostels; essential if you do end up as one of the PCVs with limited electricity.

(15) Rechargable batteries: If you bring electronics that use disposable batteries, I'd recommend rechargable batteries and a charger. It's an investment but they'll save money over time and reduce trash. (No battery recycling here.)

(16) A gift for host families or kids: think of stuff you can't get here... a souvenir from your hometown, real maple syrup, etc. The kids will appreciate Hershey's chocolate but it'll taste the same whether you buy it at home or at the grocery in Antigua.

(17) Stuff to share with your host family -A pack of cards, a photo album of your family, house, and hometown - it's fun to share. You can easily find school supplies or stickers here which are also fun with kids.

(18) Ear-plugs!: Guatemala is a noisy country. Depends on your tolerance, but I personally am not into hearing church sermons at 4:30 am on Saturday morning.

(19) Nalgene or Kleen Kanteen bottles (or Camelbak if you think you'll do a lot of hiking) - gotta have a place to put that agua pura!

(20) Camping gear: If you really love camping, you could think about bringing your own gear with you in case you'd rather not go out with tour operators. Camping off the beaten track is not generally considered a safe activity in Guatemala, but there are definitely plenty of parks where it is safe. A sleeping bag can be useful for regular travel, too.

(21) Medium-sized daypack: What is really useful for me and many volunteers is a large school backpack or medium-sized daypack (around 3000-3500 cc) for shorter trips, vacations, and day hikes. It fits in the overhead rack on the camioneta rather than needing to be thrown on top of the bus, which is less hassle in the rush and bustle to get on and off the camioneta, and also safer for your stuff.

And what to pack it all in:

A big backpackers' pack is convenient for carrying a lot of weight at one time, but if you don't already have one and don't plan on doing backpacking trips, it's not an essential. It can be convenient to have a big backpack and one other bag (rolling or duffle) but a regular rolling luggage and a duffle bag works fine. In most cases you'll never walk very far with all of your luggage combined, the bus ayudantes are super-helpful, and at most you'll brave the buses with all your stuff two times - probably less if your in-site counterpart picks you up with a car at the end of training. So don't feel pressured to buy an expensive backpackers' bag just for that.

So that's what I've got. Any comments or questions, feel free to get in touch with me!

Saturday, November 20, 2010

A day as a Guatemalan tourist

Since I'm on a roll with blog posts, I thought I'd roll out one I wrote almost a month ago, about the October 20th holiday, and never got around to posting, about a trip to Champerico with my fellow muni employees.

I sometimes feel as though I am genuinely living in an episode of The Office, if The Office were filmed in Guatemala, in a Maya-Mam town, and followed the activities of the municipalidad (the local town hall). The show would be titled "Ja te' ko'wb'il", which to someone from my town means "La municipalidad." Literally it means something like, "house of power," but it's about as close to "The Office" as we're going to get in the Mam dialect of my town.

No more is the sense of being present on some strange comedy show emphasized for me than when the muni employees are gathered collectively, as in the time the head of the office of municipal planning invited us all to his one-year-old daughter's birthday lunch, or when we gather to eat paches (hopefully potato paches) and celebrate's someone's leaving or coming or to plan the important work of stringing up 10 balloons for some crucially important event.

For the moment you will need to take my word that the variety of personalities and their interactions is amusing, to say the least. This hit home for me again on Wednesday, with my first experience as a Guatemalan tourist. Every year the muni gives its employees a free outing, and Wednesday was a holiday to celebrate the overthrow of Dictator Jorge Ubico in 1944. The muni employees decided to take advantage of the holiday to ask for an outing to beach at Champerico. (The original choice was Panajachel, but the men revolted and insisted on Champerico, for reasons that later became evident.)

The morning started out bright and early (in the dark) at 5:30 am. The rented camioneta (old school bus) was "leaving" at 5 am, which everyone knew meant 6 am (optimistically); but the most eager folks weren't for anything going to miss a free ride to the beach nor free breakfast and lunch at the beach, so they showed up at 5:30. My officemate was one of the eager beavers - she even had what I am pretty sure was strep throat and preferred to go to the beach over the doctor - so at 5:20 am I was dragging myself away from my kitten and a warm bed.

Around 6:15 we were making the calls to Persons X, Y, and Z, whom Person Q and Person T knew were coming but still had not made an appearance. At 6:30 Person Z clambered on board without the slightest hint of shame, and off we chugged to pick up two people in an aldea of my town. It also came out that there were people waiting for us down in the nearest big city, but we were going another route and someone made the executive decision to leave them behind. As far as I know, they are probably still waiting for us to pick them up. By 7 we were burning down the highway toward the beach.

It was a long ride through some beautiful country. When we actually reached the coastal plain I was struck by how similar it felt to rural New York in summer. Many times in my life I've looked over flat, rolling agricultural plains, humid, hot air bellowing in from open windows. But maybe I'm just a little homesick.

We arrived at the beachfront in Champerico and all 33 of us piled into an open-air restaurant for a late breakfast of eggs, refried beans, tortillas, queso fresco, fried plantains, and soft drinks. Then an agricultural volunteer from another foreign organization pulled out an almost-full bottle of rum, which was my first sense of where the day was heading.

From that point onward we separated into three groups: the drinking men, the women and abstaining men, and one family (a secretary, her husband who didn't give her permission to go on her own, and her young son). I didn't mind this arrangement, especially because the two guys who hung out with us all day are really good guys and it was fun to have a mixed-gender group. You generally don't hang out with people of the opposite sex in my town unless you're family, work colleagues, or dating, so it was nice to have some of the "hanging out" I was used to in the US.

We spent a little time on the beach, but the sun was sweltering hot - it felt like you could burn in just a second. Like a true gringa tourist I was prepared with sunscreen, a sun hat, a light long-sleeved shirt, and an umbrella. I gave my officemates a good laugh with all this ceremony, but they wore awesome huge-brimmed hats with their traje, too. Mom would have been proud.

Anyway, after a quick dip in the ocean the consensus was to head to a pool; so we hopped on a bicycle rickshaw and off we went, hearing rumors that there was a good spot a long ways out of town. The driver charged us less than $2 to carry three of us more than a mile in the sweltering heat; it was amazing. I think the bicycle rickshaws were a highlight of the day. It was definitely a relaxing way to travel. That type of technology makes a lot of sense for a flat tourist town without cobbled streets; I'm glad they haven't caught the tuk-tuk plague yet. It was also the first time I had ever received an advertising flyer while on a moving bicycle, from someone else on a moving bicycle. I love bikes.

I don't think I had seen a pool in more than nine months, and it was great. This was a real pool (admission $1.25) which had clean-ish showers, changing rooms, and indications of being chlorinated. After an elaborate sunscreen re-application process it was into the water. We took turns diving for a coin and did some laps. Everyone in the group happens to be really friendly and it was fun to feel really part of a group if only for a few hours.

Champerico is an interesting place. It's definitely a tourist town, but decidedly geared to national tourists. The beach is covered in trash; the bungalows are run down; there are desperate-seeming people walking around all over selling cheap shell jewelry, shaved ice cones of questionable origin, and coconuts, ready to be cut open and given a straw. Horses run up and down the beach, mostly carrying a the few foreign tourists around, and for a buck you can get your picture taken with a plastic inflatable shark. And the bike rickshaws. I liked it. It had character.

After the pool it was off to meet up with the big group for a late lunch, which reminded me that I definitely am not a seafood fan. Being vegetarian (or, here in Guatemala, "vegetarian"), this is always theoretically true, but in practice, different types of meat definitely evoke different physical reactions from me, generally in accordance with my exposure to them as a child. Most precisely I'm not a fan of seafood since it often requires bodily dismembering every last thing on the plate and in the bowl. (My parents can attest to that one in base of the famous lobster incident on Cape Cod as a kid, which was a precursory warning to my imminent vegetarianism). Perhaps the fact that the crab looks ready to crawl out of the bowl and off the plate makes it more delicious to some people.

After lunch the men scrambled to get a few last beers in for the bus ride home, and given a lack of fixed leadership - it was more like leadership by druken male consensus - we rolled out of town about an hour after schedule, which meant we were going to get home well after dark. These few hours of excitement harkened back to the days of the "drunk bus" in college; the highlights including general, mind-numbing racket; the head of police threateningly propositioning my officemate who was sitting next to me, before a municipal plumber who I think is an absolute dreamboat stepped in to tell him to buzz off; several passionate conversations between men in Mam that sounded a lot like "hey, I love you man." "Naww, I love YOU man. You're the best." "Nawwww, YOU'RE the best."; and at least two men openly bawling their eyes out on the shoulder of the guy next to them. It wasn't pretty. This has given me some whole new theories about emotional repression.

Meanwhile the women sat there ignoring it, tolerating it silently. But nevertheless, it was a memorable day, and a worthwhile day of cultural reflection, to say the least. I was exhausted and part of me would have loved to have slept in, caught up on work, and Google-chatted with my boyfriend all day. But in the end I wouldn't have remembered such a day at all, and this one I definitely will.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Working Hard, or Hardly Working?

It's been awhile since my last post: four solid weeks of thinking, hanging out with folks, teaching English, snuggling Oliver, and funnest of all, pimping the deformed love-child of my and my counterpart's ideas of community tourism.

I realize that in my quest to keep my posts mostly interesting, I've barely talked about work. In my first five months here work was very slow, but these past three months have been genuinely busy, and time has been going a lot more quickly. At times I regret all those "wasted" days - especially now having days in which I could use 72 hours instead of 24 - but when I really look back on it, there was not too much else I could have done. The slowness of work was in many ways directly related to the culture here and the amount of trust people had in me, which simply took time to build. Now I do more or less have that trust, which feels great, but it hardly seems professional to take so long before getting down to doing anything. Other factors intervened also - the weather, a disorganized counterpart, scattered community investment in my project.

At any rate, at a friend's request, I thought I'd finally get down to describing my work and projects here.

My general project is community tourism, perhaps one of the most flexible and funnest Peace Corps projects (especially if you are working at a site which actually has tourism!) We can work on everything from good business practices to hospitality to signs to guide trainings to trash management to womens' artesania to marketing and publicity to English classes to environmental education to trailwork and infrastructure to environmental interpretation... yada yada. We work with community associations, municipalities, schools, and whoever else we can.

One of the myriad ways for the frustration to come in is when you're at a site with questionable tourism potential. I am the first tourism volunteer in my site, where there is currently no tourism. It can be rather discouraging, since maybe one-third of PCV tourism sites "make it big" or have some financial success and in the others 1-3 volunteers invest two years of their lives each for a project that goes nowhere. I'm sure good things will come of my time here, but it may have nothing to do with actual tourism.

That said, there certainly is potential here. My site is near a major city as well as another major regional tourist attraction, and we have some gorgeous forests full of Mayan altars and views of volcanoes, completely undeveloped hot springs (although with very difficult access), and other gems most local people probably don't want outsiders knowing about. They have already began constructing a recreation center in the woods with a small building for events, playground, sports field, etc (directed toward regional or national tourists- Guatemalans like to have a playground and sports field in their woods!) The spot is far enough away, though, that attracting outside tourists, even nationals, is going to require some real work. It seems possible to attract a regional market, which is fine because there is a large one nearby, but that is not what my counterpart and the mayor are hoping for the park. They are imagining gringos crawling all over, and that I am the one to bring those people (with a zip-line, says my counterpart!). I doubt foreign tourists are ever going to financially sustain the operation, and I see part of my job as helping direct the muni toward a more accessible and profitable market.

Getting things going has been tough. Money's run out for the recreation center. The average townsperson doesn't really get the idea of tourism and feels ambivalent about devoting any time or energy to the idea. My counterpart, head of the municipal environmental office, is quite enthusiastic about tourism but completely scattered and in charge of about a hundred other things. (Managing six park guards and two office employees, representing our muni to GOs and NGOs, influencing municipal environmental regulations, trash management, reforestation, control of natural resources in the protected areas.)

My goals for my time here are to leave behind:

1. a strategic tourism plan and business plan for the muni and recreation center (and people who understand it);

2. a tourist-ready recreation center, well-managed and regulated, with signs and a completed environmental interpretation trail;

3. a group of people who can do environmental interpretation for groups that visit

4. solid promotion of the recreation center with local and regional schools and churches.

I don't have much hope for getting tourism going outside of the recreation center in the next 15 months, but I'd like to leave the idea with the muni that there are other touristic spots in town; the rec center is far far far and really not any more interesting than other spots in the municipio, or simply the municipio's culture itself. But, there aren't too many people in town who care at all about developing tourism, and my counterpart, the most vocal proponent, really only cares about "eco-tourism" in the forests. I also hope to unite the womens' artesania groups here a little more - that could go somewhere even if tourism doesn't, especially with the recent opening of the Municipal Womens' Office.

It would also be nice to accomplish some stuff with trash management; this year we will be doing an eco-ladrillo campaign with schools (which we could use for building at the recreation center!). I also hope to do a program with high schools to clean up the main rivers in town, and motivate the muni to fix the mess that is the municipal trash dump - perhaps via pressure from a community trash management committee. Plus my Masters' thesis on the water springs, which I've had the thought could be the kick-off of a community water monitoring program (similar to how the community plants trees every year.) OK so I'm dreaming big here, but you've gotta shoot for the moon sometimes even if you're just going to end up flat on your butt in the dirt.

I also have a total dream of putting together a video with oral histories from older people, about their lives and their perspectives on the environment, to use with high school students whose respect for traditional ways are ever waning. I think there would be lots of support for this idea from the Elders' Council, Cultural House, schools... And I would love doing it. I can just anticipate a lot of "creative differences" coming up though, so I would have to ask myself if it was really for local folks, or more for me.

At the moment these goals seem somewhat reasonable but we will have to see. I am about a third through my Peace Corps service and will have to ramp up my productivity rate considerably to get all that done! But the reach has got to exceed the grasp, or you might not even grasp all what you can - is my theory.

Right now without funding to finish the recreation center, stuff has been going slowly. I've been finishing a market survey with local folks about the recreation center (we did 200 surveys and it's now just the analysis), and I've also been doing a summer course in English for teachers (with about 25-30 participants), and meeting with womens' artesania groups to get to know their abilities and guage interest for an English-tourism hospitality class.

As a tiny side project I am trying to help the women improve their products and find small markets; they want to get rich but I'm learning breaking into the foreign artesania market is really tough. Other projects could be much more profitable... Just because gringos have money doesn't mean there's a portable gold mine hidden down our pants that we're ready to turn over. In fact, quite the opposite when the middle-man is getting a 4-5x mark-up. (There's a reason we have money!) But I want to help them realize that, if nothing else. And at best maybe a woman's cooperative or artesanal market could take off here in the future.

This month we'll also go out to the springs to get an idea what the monitoring program will entail. I also am currently in charge of training our new environmental educator by this next school year and writing our office's environmental education and tourism plans for 2011 with her.

So. Life is a little all over the place. But it's definitely not boring. And I go home for Christmas one month from today exactly! So excited!

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Peace Corps Pet #2: Oliver!

After a request from a dear penpal, I'm working on post on about my project work, goals, and reflections. I realize I write very little about work - these first six months have been way more about adapting and integrating and just living - but I think six months in is a good time to write such a post - it's just going to take a little thinking and pruning before I release it off onto the web.

In the meanwhile I realized I haven't mentioned much about a major life change, my new kitten, Oliver! My whole host family knows I like cats, and that I'd been feeling down about Mishi since he took off. One day about three weeks ago my 5-year-old twin host cousins came back from their grandma's house, knocked on my window, and announced that they had a "regalo" for me.

Typically this would be a total trick and they would just want an excuse to be let into my room in order to run around screaming and wreaking general chaos, so I ignored them. Yet after a little while my older host sister, too, knocked on the door, and so I answered. And there he was in a little box: a tiny kitten of maybe 8 weeks of age. Originally I wasn't going to get another pet if Mishi didn't come back; but with a motherless kitten on my hands, I was feeling kind of flexible.

At any rate, Oliver has been great. After an initial night of crying and hiding he's gotten used to the environment and seems content with eating, sleeping, digging in his improvised litter box, and tearing around the room chasing everything from my toilet paper roll to the cat toys my parents sent. And he's so tiny, my room is plenty big for the moment, which is great. (My little host brother calls him "Botz Mishi" which means "Small Mishi" in Mam... too cute.) I am hoping we will be together for the rest of my 18 months here, but at the same time just really enjoying the time we have here together now.

As for Mishi, I still think of him, but his fate is definitively out of my hands unless he comes back. And I feel okay about that, since I think that as a time-hardened callejero he had earned the right to come and go as he wanted.

Hmm... I am definitely headed for total cat lady status, aren't I, though? I'm pretty sure I've already secured my status with my host family in future volunteer stories as "the one who loved cats."

Sunday, October 3, 2010

The Joys of Market Day

Something that I love about Guatemala is the extent to which people are still engrained with the land. I see this every day, but it's on market days that the prevalence of the local economy really shows; in one tiny space you can get an amazing variety of goods: vegetables, fruits, meats, eggs, fresh cheese, dried staples, spices, artisan wares, street foods, and other goods, the majority cultivated, crafted, or raised within the same department or municipality, or at least within Guatemala. And generally speaking, the people work incredibly hard to make the land as productive as it is.

I was reflecting, walking home from the plaza today (eating a pineapple pastry which cost me about $0.40 cents), that taking for granted a twice-weekly year-round market, teeming with fresh cheap produce, is something I am going to miss a lot when I go back to New York and Michigan. I am going to miss being in a place where it is the norm to shop at an open-air market instead of an air-conditioned store where the average product inside has traveled more than 300 miles to get to its destination. There is just something about a market that makes me feel inherently more alive and engaged in the process of feeding myself.

It's not just the market, either. You can't go on a walk in our forest without someone plucking a bunch of hierba to boil up, or leaves to use in cooking, or some plant for medicine or to jazz up their food. My host mom was once talking about how she didn't know what to make for dinner, and my 8-year-old host cousin overheard. “I'll go get some hierba (greens) on the mountain,” he said. And he did. Just like that. Most people here know where food comes from, and from a young age, too.

Today my host mom invited me to have lunch with the family because they were going to slaughter a chicken. (They know how we "vegetarians" love meat!) My host sister and I ended up depluming and butchering up the poor lady while my four-year-old host brother looked on nonchalantly. After lunch I sat in a circle with the women, them chatting in Mam, me straining to catch words I knew, as we scraped corn off the husk by hand to make sweet corn tamales for dinner. As we worked my host grandfather and little host sister brought us fresh cobs from the field; it struck me how remarkable it is that these are all still totally normal, everyday tasks here for an average middle-class family in my town.

You find plenty of signs of the disconnected-from-everything global consumer economy here too, though. In any Guatemalan market or plaza you can find an amazing array of cheap throw-away goods from China. Out of habit, most people get everything in a brand new plastic bag. People are just as likely to buy a pill as use a natural remedy. Seeing all of this, I wonder sometimes if it is inevitable with greater people having greater economic security that fast convenience will over-take traditional ways of doing things - leaving the slower methods for special occasions, holidays, and stories for grandkids.

Based on my experience so far, I would argue it's a natural human instinct to seek greater convenience to the extent it's within our economic means, and you can't judge people for it; we all look for ways to make life easier, which is a fundamental driver of cultural evolution. Yet at the same time, personal taste, familiarity, and culture pride have a lot to do with it, too. Based on what I know of my town's cultural tenacity, I'm inclined to say that even if everyone in my town became rich, I wouldn't expect them to abolish the market and throw up a Wal-Mart the next day or anything. But I suppose we will have to see!

Sunday, September 26, 2010

"What's the food like there?"

This post goes out to my Grandma Marge. It is hard being apart, but the daily lesson of "appreciate the small stuff" is never lost on me, and there is lots of joy in the Peace Corps experience that I want to share with her.

Food is definitely a joyful part of life - whether for the novelty, simple satisfaction of hunger, or the sheer taste of something delicious. Something Grams always likes to ask me is, "What's the food like there?", so in the spirit of celebrating the small stuff, and answering her question, I've thrown together some pictures.

This was an on-the-spot idea, so the dishes are mostly from special occasions when I thought to take pictures and not really representative of what local folks typically eat nor what I typically eat - notably missing are eggs (scrambled or fried), boiled potatoes, and boiled herbs. But you'll get a general idea!

Local Food

Potato paches with white bread and a hot pineapple drink! Paches are typically served for birthdays (like on the above occasion) or other special events such as good-bye or welcome parties. Paches always have a big chunk of chicken inside, typically slaughtered that day.

Churrasco (steak), refried beans, rice, green onion, and tamalito (boiled corn dough wrapped in a leaf). Refried beans and rice are a staple in my diet, as are tamalitos, which my family makes every day. To avoid offense, I will make a good-faith effort to eat churrasco when it's given to me at events, but I still consider myself vegetarian. (That will be another post for another day!)

These are chuchitos ("little dogs") made of blue corn dough with a filling of chicken and pepper sauce. Often served on the Sabbath.

This is a typical dish my family would make for lunch or dinner: pasta with tomato, onion, and chicken feet for flavoring. This is not one I have been adventurous enough to try!

It's the corn harvest, and so a few weeks ago we boiled corn-on-the-cob (elote) and had a wonderful snack with everyone from the muni (kind of like town hall). Being from central New York, I felt right at home.

Desperation Dinners

A desperation lunch made of my mish-mash leftovers: broccoli, chow mein noodles, pancake.

This is an amazing vegetable curry with whole grain rice. This is a beloved recipe I learned from a JICA (Japanese) volunteer in my site. We can get a great variety of vegetables on market day in my site: cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage, carrot, and of course onion, tomato, potato, plus many others.

I've been battling a sinus infection all this weekend, and happened to have half a pineapple left, so it occurred to me that would be a great lunch yesterday. There is tons of tropical fruit available here from Guatemala's coastal plantations. I also had a little brown rice left over and figured some whole grain couldn't hurt, either.

Special Occasions

Lasagna is a favorite of my host dad's from when he was an immigrant in the United States, and the family asked if we could make it sometime. We went all out with real mozzarella and ricotta cheese from Xela. It was reallly good.

I love love love macaroni and cheese, because it is one of my mom's special home-made dishes. She always serves it with apple sauce and some sort of green veggie, so when apple season came around, I invited my host family to make mac and cheese and fresh apple sauce together. Delicious!

There are several birthday cake shops in my town. It was admittedly nice to have a US-style cake on my birthday! (At a cost of about $9.)

Apple crisp! (Well, sort of, it kind of ended up more like apple cake. But it was delicious, and it got the stamp of approval from my little host siblings!) I try not to bake too much, though, 'cause it drains the gas tank like crazy.

And finally, a very special treat - this is my favorite dish from a great Indian restaurant in Xela! I didn't expect to find Indian food in Guatemala, but Xela is quite cosmopolitan when you get down to it, to the luck of Peace Corps volunteers, tourists, and adventurously-palated people everywhere. It's a great change-up after weeks of the same food in site.

I count myself lucky to live in such a place of abundance, keeping in mind that there are many who are not able to take full advantage of that abundance as I am. Gotta be thankful for each meal!

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

A Tale of Two Communities

This weekend I went to visit a friend from my training town to see her site and help her give an environmental education workshop to the teachers of her community. Of all the 16 (?) of us from our training group, Tara's and my communities are physically closest as the crow flies – about 20 km - despite this, to get between the two the standard method is a 100-or-so km, 3-hour tour in bus or pick-up on established roads. If you were accustomed to the terrain, you could probably get between the two in a half day's walk. In terms of characteristics, however, the communities could practically be on different sides of the country.

One of the beautiful views out into the sub-tropical jungle!

My indigenous agrarian community of several thousand is somewhat dry and temperate trending to cold; Tara's ladino agrarian community of a few hundred people is quite humid and temperate trending to hot. Tara's got jungle, tropical diseases, and tarantulas; we've got temperate deciduous and coniferous forest, and I think I once saw a spider that was about the size of a nickel. Her closest market is about an hour away, there is only one bus a day out of town and one back in; in comparison, within my town I can get almost everything I reasonably need, and I can hop a micro every 30 or so minutes, to arrive in under an hour at the nearest big city where I can find some store carrying almost whatever I could want. In a quick daytrip – fairly standard for many volunteers in my region - I can even choose to shop at Hiper-Paiz - the local Wal-Mart branch - or any number of other chain stores in the local mall. (Not that I have the urge much.)

The teachers hard at work listening. Note the hammock (!)

This is all just to say that Guatemala is a country of unbelievable diversity, which makes the Peace Corps experience quite diverse as well. For me, this weekend was an interesting time to be thrust in a completely different environment, resulting in some hard personal reflection in a short amount of time. I had a great time: we drank the cooperative's delicious coffee (and I never enjoy drinking coffee!), feasted on the food Tara valiantly trekked home from town, watched her community win in the local soccer finals, hashed and re-hashed our experiences and reflections, and took in the humid air (which reminded me of summer at home in New York), expansive views of jungle and plantation, and peaceful sense of isolation. I also hung out in a hammock reading while the afternoon rains pounded down, which has made me realize I would like a hammock. Oh yeah, and we worked a little bit, too!

Something I am beginning to come to terms with is my initial disappointment to be assigned to a larger town, with few physical challenges, close to a large city. Through my visit to Tara's site I had time to process and to put to words the idea that it is in a small isolated community that I feel most energized, where I naturally recharge myself, where I feel I can work most effectively. Tara on the other hand really craves the city life sometimes. So I think we came to the conclusion that sometimes by nature people can work best, especially under stress, in one particular environment over another, and perhaps Peace Corps ought to assess this a little more rigorously.

While I see room for improvement in the assignment process, especially as a professional development organization, at the end of the day, you sometimes just have to just live it to know how it will be and how you will react. Perhaps this is the prime lesson Peace Corps can offer us as a personal growth experience, of taking what we have in every moment for what it is and not wishing it were something else. Just easier said than done. Which is why, I suppose, you just gotta do it.

Thanks to Tara for a great weekend!

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Would they ever have imagined 189 years ago...?

This week we celebrated Guatemala's independence from Spain in 1821. This meant that for the past 1-2 weeks nearly every schoolchild in Guatemala devoted him or herself exclusively to drum core and gymnastics practice, pageant preparations, and making quetzal birds and ceiba trees out of tissue paper and cardstock. Here in my region, it also means the Feria de Independencia in the city of Xela, the highlights of which are a big 4-hour parade of high school marching bands and an enormous fair with carnival rides, food, and vendors.

On Tuesday, we the employees of the muni cooked and ate a huge pot of corn-on-the-cob on an open fire on the roof of the muni (remind me to write about that sometime). That was more to celebrate the start of the corn harvest more than independence, but it was awesome. I love corn-on-the-cob! Aside from that nothing really special happened with the muni this week. They did give us the holiday off and also hung some obligatory plastic flag-banners and strings of balloons, which disappointedly deflated within 12 hours. Within the schools there were some interesting events, however. Many Peace Corps Guatemala bloggers note the school pageant festivities one encounters this time of year, and I was no less impressed when we had the fortune to stumble upon one, foolishly having planned to do the tourism diagnostic with a group of school teachers this week.

In summary, you haven't lived until you see a bunch of 4-11 year-olds from a remote aldea where the average adult can barely write and the school doesn't have running water shimmy and sway their hips around in prom hairdos and pristine evening wear, the type of absurd adult-dress one buys their daughter in the US only to be a flower girl or perhaps be Bat Mitzvahed or have their quincenera. It goes to show a lot about priorities. But to each their own. I was also highly amused by the question-answer period, in which they asked the 4-year-old contestant, “Name some of the patriotic symbols of our country.” Brutal! She probably barely even speaks Spanish. But glad we're emphasizing brains and beauty equally (right).

As for my priorities, since nothing much was going on here in town on the “mero dia” I went into Xela to meet up with a friend's family, see the parade and fish for something different to do. We ended up watching a bit of the parade and then going to this amazing Italian restaurant, Cardinelli's, on 14th Avenue near Parque Central, for 4-cheese pizza and white wine! It was great, I hadn't had wine or good cheese in quite some time. My taste buds were going wild. The restaurant is a little expensive but they import all of their ingredients from Italy, excepting vegetables of course.

I felt a little guilty eating so ridiculously well to celebrate the supposed independence day when so many people in Guatemala would never think of dropping so much on a meal ($12 per person), and in reality, Guatemala is far from independent in the sense of everything we like to associate with that word. (That will be a whole other post for another day.) But man, the food was delicious! And we all need a good excuse to celebrate now and again, even though just what exactly we're celebrating might be slightly vague. And I can't really feel too bad about supporting independent, creative cuisine with amazing service.

We finished the evening off with a viewing of Back to the Future. I barely watch TV or movies these days, but at times it is really nice to watch stuff that reminds me of home - “comfort TV” I guess you could call it. I must have watched that movie no less than 50 times as a kid! Overall the day was a pretty great mish-mash of celebration and rest. And Saturday I'm headed off to a friend's community to help out with an environmental education workshop, so it was nice to have a little mini-weekend before the big trip.

So all-in-all it has been an interesting week, a time of that celebration and break from routine that I think every human being secretly craves and cherishes. Or, at least I know I do, even if it is an unfamiliar celebration in an unfamiliar place! And we did actually manage a tiny bit of work, too, but more on that later.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Life on the rollercoaster

What to report of late? It's interesting, but in these past two weeks since my vacation I am really getting back into the “life here is so worthwhile” and I dare say, on occasion, “I love it here!” frame of mind, which is great. It is so interesting to note my own mood swings and the “rollercoaster” of emotion as my good friend from my training town commented on her blog. It is fascinating to me how we humans are able to adapt ourselves to different situations, and the processes we go through during that adaptation - how different my feelings can be from week to week and day to day.

Things are looking up primarily for the fact that the new environmental educator has started in my office, and coincidentally a whole pile of potential work and collaborations have started showing up. My counterpart also recently suggested monthly planning meetings - which I have mentioned a few times and have been fantasizing about for months - and I am really psyched. In this month's planning meeting we already planned October's planning meeting. I am sure it will actually happen, too, +/-7 days from its scheduled date. Amazing! My philosophy in these past nearly six months has been that for sustainability's sake there is only so much you can exert yourself if local counterparts don't take initiative. So when they do, it is a real eureka moment! It just requires a lot of patience... perhaps 24 months of patience...

In the months before summer vacation sets in we're primarily doing a survey on local opinions about tourism, as well as some activities with local schools and young people, including promoting the park and recreation center as a good location for the sixth-graders' farewell party. I feel good about this work. It's important in my view to make the community aspect of “community tourism” actually happen, and not leave it as a half-baked idea. (Of which there are unfortunately many in my municipality and in my office, specifically.) We also are starting a project with local Mayan priests to name and “label” the 20-something altars in the protected areas of the muni with wood signs, assuming the priests give it the OK. I am thinking this collaboration could lead to some cool projects later on, too. Not to mention everything else we'd like to do in November and December...

So at this point we have a ton of work to do and it constantly feels like herding cats. Or at times, juggling them. Efficiency is a whole other concept here and keeping track of all the loose ends requires a lot of organization and patience. I am kind of hoping I don't adapt too much – could make reverse-adaptation to the US work-world a real shock!

A recent downturn of events is that Mishi has gone on the lamb, presumably in hunt of a nice sexy lady friend, or several nice sexy lady friends. He took off three days ago, disappointingly the day before I got a package of toys and catnip for him from my parents. (Heaven help my future children from the spoiling they are going to get!) The package is a whole other cultural commentary for another day...

The downturn is mostly because he had been acting out-of-character and aggressive lately, and gave me a good bite or two in the last two weeks. Per standard protocol I had been keeping an eye on him since the last bite to be sure the aggression was behavioral and not medical (rabies, for instance) – but since he took off, you can't say for sure. So, rabies prophylaxis it is; I get the final shot on Monday. I really doubt he had rabies, but nevertheless, the idea scares the hell out of me, so I called in. The Peace Corps Medical Officer was really understanding on the phone, although clearly not too excited I'd adopted a quasi-feral street cat. Fair enough.

But you had to know him. What a great cat. I hope he comes home.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Adventures in Guatemalan food: Paches

At the basis of many a Guatemalan adventure in food is the phenomenon of being “tortillar-ed”. Not to be confused with the action of “tortillar” in the sense: “The masa was tortillared into tortillas,” “tortillar-ed” refers to the rather passive phenomenon of being offered significant quantities of food no less than three times between your house and your final destination (generally involving significant quantities of tortillas, as implied by the verb). And here in Guatemala, being offered food is as good as eating it, so more appropriately, to be tortillar-ed implies being force-fed a large quantity of food within a short time via the Guatemalan ethic of hospitality and sharing.

I do not have to preoccupy myself much about being tortillar-ed. There are other things that occupy the prime worrying slots: the well-being of my wandering street cat in a land of rabies, vicious dogs, apathetic people, and assorted diseases; making friends and fitting in; trying to understand what people really mean to say or not say; avoiding spending more than 10% of my week in church; pick-pockets on the bus; attempting work of some value; among others. Now and again, however, I am tortillar-ed. And I mean hard.

Here I would be referring to my experience with one of the most popular typical foods of this region of Guatemala: paches. Paches are a mushy porridge of starch (either rice or potato) with a pepper sauce and large chunk of chicken in the center (bone optional) wrapped in a big green leaf and then boiled. They're good-sized and inevitably the meal of choice at every special event in my town (goodbye parties, birthdays, lo que sea), served on a styrofoam tray with two slices of Wonder-bread style white bread, which no one here eats under any other circumstances whatsoever. (I'm still trying to wrap my head around this particular tradition.) In some towns of this region the folks with economic means to do so make them every Saturday, although I assume they forgo the styrofoam tray and probably even the white bread- I get the sense that's a special touch for events.

Paches de papa (potato), served with white bread and a warm pineapple drink.

While I inevitably feel wonderful about being included in whatever special event warrants the paches - even if most of the conversation is in Mam and I'm left nodding and smiling - I have very divergent opinions about them depending on what they're made of. I'm always fairly anti-white bread and anti-styrofoam, but aside from that... Paches of potato are delicious. I could eat maybe 3 or 4 of them in one sitting. To me they taste something like curry. Whenever I eat them I always finish feeling more connected to my local community members and somehow happier to be alive. Definitely my favorite local tipico food. End of story.

Paches of rice are bad news. About five bites into my first one I'm remembering how awful they are and my stomach begins to feel as though it is full of sawdust. Nevertheless you have to smile and act extremely excited, because paches of rice are many people's very favorite food here, associated with happy memories of community and family and celebration.

It is common to give two paches here, as a type of snack or small meal, and typically I can manage one paches of rice just fine, and fake my way through the second. The striking beauty of paches is that they come wrapped in a huge leaf, so if you're sneaky, you can actually give the impression you've eaten everything, even when you feel another bite would possibly cause you to explode. I don't mean to come off as ungrateful or wasteful of food, and anyone who knows me knows I almost religiously subscribe to the clean-plate club. But man, you have to be there. There is only so much flavorless twice-boiled rice one can fit inside oneself. You get to be pretty thankful for that leaf.

The worst was when I was invited to the birthday lunch for the 1-year-old daughter of the coordinador of the Office of Municipal Planning. It was actually also the best, because the coordinador invited everyone from the muni a week ahead of time with printed, hand-addressed invitations, made a special arrangement with a local microbus driver to take us all to his aldea, paid for all our bus fares, was clearly so proud to present lunch to all of us in honor of his baby girl. It was really touching to be part of, if kind of comical. All of the characters from the muni traipsing out to this party was undeniably a bit reminiscent of an episode of The Office - if The Office were titled “The Muni” and 95% of the dialogue was in Mam.

At any rate: THREE PACHES for each person! Wow. It was incredible. The family pride was palpable; they certainly must have spent a fair chunk of change to make three paches for something like 40 people (as well as buying THREE professional cakes). I ended up taking my third paches away in a little plastic bag, as is socially acceptable here, since I couldn't even fake that I had touched it. No aguanté, pues. It's so weird, too. I usually can eat so much, and even immediately following the two paches I ate an enormous slice of cake.

But another rice paches, no. They're my kryptonite.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Learning a Mayan language

After almost 70 hours of lessons in Mam with a friend here in site, I'm going to relate the diagnosis that learning a Mayan language is not that easy. First, you have the issue of distinguishing the sounds: k', k, ky', ky, q', q, j all tend to lend themselves to beautiful confusion. Was that kyaq' (caliente/rojo)? Or wait, was it ky'aq (flea)? Or wait, maybe it was kya'j (cielo)? The incredible thing being that native speakers don't just divine the meaning based on context (as in the English where/wear), they really differentiate the pronunciation of sounds that to my ear sound almost identical. Don't even get me started on tx' and ch', nor their cousins ch, tx, x, and x with dieresis...

Then there is the issuing of producing the sounds. Oh man, is that something else entirely. I'm getting better, although without constant practice I slip back and forget the difference between sounds. There's no better way to test how I'm doing than to try to speak with the kids in the family, especially 3-year-old Rene, who doesn't speak much Spanish (see the post "Que es eso?") Tonight the two of us were hanging out in the kitchen together sharing the dinner I'd made. Somehow we always manage to communicate via our rudimentary modified Spanish, but I decided to throw a little Mam in the mix and ask for the name of things around the kitchen. My efforts sort of failed, with good reason (I realized later I was asking him "What's your name?" rather than "What do you call this?"), but my efforts did inspire Renecito to start giving me random words to try to pronounce. He found this game HIGHLY entertaining and his mom told me that he later reported to her (in Mam of course) how wonderful it was that I pronounced the word for "dish" with "j" instead of "q". What kind of idiot do we have living with us, anyway, Mom?

Finally I finished the conversation by saying, "Ma chin wane" (I just ate), to which Renecito responded in an exasperated tone, "Nqowane" (We're eating!) Pretty funny. And awesome to understand a word, to have insight into what Renecito is thinking, in his own language!

So, progress is definitely slow, since I am often way too lazy and tired from my primary "work" to study as much as I could, but I get encouragement in every smile and even every scoff when I offer up to people in a tienda "chjonte" (thanks), or to those I pass on the street, "wiya" (bye) or "chab'aya" or "chab'aqeye" (little by little, roughly like "take it easy"), or "mmm" to the ancianitos (a greeting of respect).

Whether people seem to react positively or not, I think even minuscule efforts to speak Mam do make a difference to people. The point really hit home for me with the thunderous round of applause I got after giving a talk on indigenous rights and mining to a group of young leaders, closing with "chjonte tun amb'il y chjonte tun nak'b'il" (thanks for the time and thanks for your attention). Such moments make me feel great and really encourage me to work to be able to speak and understand the basics.

Then there is the fact that I am learning this language through Spanish. Did I dream myself capable of this a year ago? Not really, to be honest. But that is one of the truly cool things about Peace Corps, the chance to break those limits you thought you had, chab'aku (little by little).

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Let the apple fest begin

Today I made apple sauce. It was the amazing inauguration of what I am planning to turn into a month-long Applefest celebration. What is Applefest, one might ask? My last two years of college I lived in the Loj - a cozy house with 10 other gals on the main drag in town - where each fall the housemates got together one Saturday around the apple harvest and invited the community to eat an enormous array of dishes involving apples - "Applefest".

There's just something about eating in local season that makes me happy, and for me, the apple is kind of my quintessential local food. Born and raised and educated in New York, I always associated apples, and their various products, with home and fall and friends and well-being and other emotions that seem too complicated to explain in words. Indeed, I would even go far enough to say that my emotional relationship with apples in a sense could be equated to the Guatemalan relationship with corn.

So I honestly found it vaguely disorienting to walk past the plaza one morning and see the vendors with enormous piles of local, blemished, worm-ridden, delicious apples, looking like they were right off the tree in my grandpa's backyard. 3Q/lb. I mean, of course we have apples here. We have potatoes in spades, why not colder-climate fruit, too? There's an apple tree in my friend's yard. I just hadn't realized I'd see this food that reminds so distinctly and emotionally of home in a place that feels so physically and emotionally and culturally distinct from New York - a place where the leaves aren't changing and we shouldn't hold our breath for snow. So it took me a week or two to wrap my head around it and buy some cinnamon, but then I did. Apples? Why yes I will, thank you.

It's amazing how strongly smell evokes memory. Preparing the apple sauce sent me back instantly to apples past: picking apples in our backyard with Mom when I was 3, to make apple crisp - what a revelation that you could eat things that grew outside and didn't come from a supermarket!, cider with friends after a geology field trip, cooking for Apple fest until late at night, window-shopping the bazillions of varieties at the local farmer's market in my college town in Central New York, picking apples with my boyfriend in the rain in Upper Michigan on a friend's farm, making fresh apple sauce for my pop-pop, bringing apple crisp with maple syrup and fresh whipped cream through the snow to a potluck...

The apples I picked up are more cider apples and not really cooking apples, but I'm not going to complain, and I don't think anyone else is either. My host sister even gave some apple sauce to her baby, who is just starting on solid foods, and he loved it. Now the only thing to get is some maple syrup!

On another note, time seems to be flying the past week and when I look ahead I only see appointments, social engagements, pending research, housekeeping and personal to-do lists, and work commitments whizzing past me. This is great. For the moment, being busy keeps me happy, and suddenly I am getting solid ideas of things to do and imagining attempting real work here. And at least I will have some comfort food to accompany me in these next weeks before the apples finish!

Saturday, August 14, 2010


I bring up yard work not because we have a yard here; in fact I can’t remember the last time I saw an actual grass lawn in front of a house. I bring this up because lately I’ve been contemplating life in context of the often-used but especially applicable saying whenever expectations and human beings mix: the grass is always greener on the other side. To put on my symbolism hat, I went through a mood for a few days after my vacation finished where I just felt miserably fixated on how brown and depressing and sparse my lawn is in comparison to the one I‘d been hanging out on for the past two weeks. I even began to think about my friend’s lawns and how much greener they were, too. Positive thinking can take you so far (Repeat after me: “Man, I really like brown grass!”) but at some point emotional honesty has to come in to play. Sometimes the grass does look greener over there. It really does.

It occurred to me to just sell the house, pack it in, and go pitch a tent on the green grass. I didn’t fixate on this particular option, finding it extreme and knowing that I’d probably get used to brown grass again, anyway. But I thought about it. And I was still miserable.

Then it occurred to me: if I figure out why the grass is so freaking sickly, maybe I can make it greener, rather than just lamenting its sorry state.

I think the reasons I came up with are not that unusual to the typical Peace Corps experience:

I feel lonely.
I feel stagnant, as though I am stuck in the same ineffective routine.
I feel my contribution here is not that significant to anyone.

So then I went about starting some yard work, a little watering here, a little flower-planting there, a little landscaping there… that is to say, it occurred to me to reach out to the people around me to try to make stronger social connections and get new, fun, small routines going, as the larger-picture work is going to take a lot longer and require a lot of patience.

(1) I reached out to a JICA volunteer in my site and went to a Japanese cultural fair in a nearby town - we've always been kind of too busy to get together, but it turns out she is extremely nice - and we‘re talking about hanging out every other weekend or so with the newly arrived JICA volunteer.
(2) Instead of just sitting in the office all day Monday, I checked out a cultural tourism fair organized by a fellow community tourism PCV
(3) I started making lunch every Thursday with the volunteer at a clinic in town, who lives in a nearby city
(4) I called the newly-arrived PCV in a nearby town, who it turns out is super-psyched to be friends and wants to go hiking sometime soon!
(5) I dropped in to chat with all the store-keepers in town I haven’t seen in awhile; my goal is to meet more of them and have a more regular presence in parts of town I don't always go to
(6) I had a sleepover and made some delicious food with the two friends from my training group I had never visited in site
(7) I arranged to teach English for Segundo basico students every Monday with a teacher in a nearby aldea… I’m excited to make it fun and incorporate a mix of Youth Development and Environmental Ed topics.
(8) I bought a fun card game for the kids in my host family, which I have now had to play every night for two hours, but hey, I asked for it
(9) I’ve started thinking about how to make my menu a little bit more exciting and interesting … and some cool foods I could perhaps share with my host family. It’s apple season so I am thinking apple sauce and apple pie!
(10) I gave in and am now regularly providing el gatito with a can of cat food per day. It’s sometimes more than I spend on food for myself, but that regular companionship is so worth it.
(11) I’m contemplating a serious attack on the Mam language. Despite finding lessons with my teacher really boring, she’s a good friend so I think I'll stick with her and have to take my own initiative to make it exciting to learn.
(12) I met some folks from MAGA who work in our muni and are also on the Comision de Fomento Economico y Medio Ambiente. They are really excited about collaborating on projects that really interest me: family gardens, lombricompost. In the later collaboration especially I perhaps see hope for the future of trash management here. This is a huge feeling.

And there are lots of other small things outside the routine that I am contemplating doing to “free my mind” so-to-speak.

It’s not too out of the routine but I also have gone to help with reforestation with kids twice during the past two weeks. I always come back so content from the time with the kids, the teachers, and in the woods. This makes me realize I really need to take the initiative to get out to the schools and start working with them more, now that I have a solid base of confianza in the office and have some clue what the deal is.

I still feel kind of lousy on occasion, but I think the positive thing is that I’ve turned the switch on my brain to start looking for and seeking smaller pleasures out of this experience, as well as being aware of barriers I’m putting up for myself.

So Project: Lawn Improvement is underway. I will let you know how it proceeds. Based on the pilot experience this week, I am hopeful for positive results. We’re not putting in the koi pond and rhododendron bushes yet… but, at least with these small steps I am feeling more energized, and capable of making this experience more what I want it to be.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Que venga la tormenta

After some 15 collective days away in July, I'm finally back again in site for a long haul - maybe until Christmas, with a few days away before that for in-service training and Thanksgiving. Que venga la tormenta, as my APCD said the last day of Reconnect. It was great to be away and it's tough to be back, although I must admit nowhere near as tough as it was to come out to site in the first place.

But, before I get into that, the story up until this point: After a few lazy days in Panajachel we headed over to visit a friend in Santiago Atitlan. After an entertainingly rough ride across the lake we got off and got an eclectic tour of town; the muni, the church, the budget dive we'd be staying at, a local comedor, and aldea Panabaj, the site of a large mudflow in 2005 and muni relocation project. Santiago is a really interesting town, and a unique challenge as a tourism PCV, since the place is already crawling with tourists and tourism projects. It was a fun afternoon, although that night I crashed with some raucous fever. After that we went to back to Panajachel for a final night, and then on to the capital for a talk with CONRED and a night in Antigua. This wasn't in the original plan, but I think Guatemala may simply be a vortex of surprises, because pre-planning seems to continuously render itself less useful here than seems normal. All-in-all the time out of site was a welcome breath of air, but I have to admit that the morning hello's on my way to work today did make me smile in a 'home sweet home' sort of way. I guess that's kind of the best of both worlds, right?

At any rate, la tormenta: The immediate challenge of right now is that having surmounted that golden 3-month assessment period, I'm feeling antsy, as though I need to get something important done about yesterday or so; mentally tallying the half-dozen or so ineffective charlas and radio spots I've done, the small percentage of schools I've visited, the events I've attended and one proposal I wrote, I wonder, how will I organize anything valuable and long-lasting here, based in the fundamental effort and interests of community members; and I start to doubt the value of my potential contribution here. Perhaps I'm undervaluing the social progress I've made in 3 months, but after two weeks straight with your best friend, social progress amongst relative-strangers resonates weakly. But it's the classic PCV story. I've just got to keep it in perspective.

So that said, I've got food, I've got water, I've got love, I've got "animal pairs memory", I've got an awesome little laptop, 24-7 wireless Internet. And Mishi. So really I can't complain too much. A ver where the next few weeks take us...

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Recent good times...

A lot of good stuff has been happening, so I figured I'd write a quick update. In rough chronological order:

Dentist appointment: After four appointments, three trips, and some 250Q in taxis into the capital, I have a permanent crown. It almost feels more comfortable than my own teeth. That dentist is an artist. Thanks, Uncle Sam, for the best root canal I will ever have in my entire life. (And let's hope, the last!)

Antigua: At this point the calories are all a blur, but I think we ate every type of dessert available in Antigua, probably twice. And the regular meals: Thai food, Tipico food, Antigua-gringo food, all so delicious. We also visited an old convent, Las Capuchinas. Really impressive.

Reconnect: It was good to see folks, and the highlight was probably a pizza lunch and Q/A with the Ambassador, who was really down-to-earth, but also well-composed and eloquently spoken. It was good to see him having three months of experience in-country. I liked him. And I hear he makes awesome brownies. Perhaps all US diplomats should be required to bake.

Feria: I got back from Antigua in time for the Feria in my town, and three days off from school/muni. I'm not sure our Feria really boasts anything all that special, but I will be pining away for churros for months ... And it was interesting to see the town full of vendors and cheap carnival games and rides. Pictures to come of the 30-some men dancing around in the church courtyard in skimpy Princess Xena costumes for the Baile of Disfraces. (Cross-dressing at Feria seems like a common-place occurence in Catholic Guatemala...)

Xela: On the weekend we went into Xela for awhile; I think I'm officially addicted to that Indian restaurant in town. Add it to the list of stuff gringos like.

Laguna Chkab'al: On Saturday we went with a friend who was visiting Xela up to Laguna Chicabal for the first time. I felt pretty out of shape but I remembered how much I love to get out hiking, and realized I need to figure out a way to get out more. Technically it is part of my work... But anyway, Chicabal is a pretty cool community tourism project, and for the moment it seems to be working well. A good example for us to think about following...

Panajachel: Now we're here on Lago Atitlan for five days of annual leave. I had expected Pana to be so touristy and expensive it would be a bummer, but after 5 days in Antigua it's actually not so bad. The lake is teeming with gringos, as promised, and locals following gringos around selling artesania, but the mellow atmosphere and beauty are pretty relaxing. And I've eaten more tofu in the past 36 hours than I did in the two weeks before I left for Guatemala. Interesting how tourism itself interacts with and influences local culture.

A tourism volunteer on vacation as a tourist... is that, like, meta-tourism?

Anyway, this break has been a good time to reflect on the past three and a half months, think about the perspectives and worries tying me down in site, and how I can readjust and refocus my approach for the next little stretch of work...

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Y mañana, un descanso...

Have you ever sat waiting for a pot of water to boil while fire ants danced in your trousers?

That’s about how I feel right now!

Tomorrow I’m heading to the capital for a dentist appointment, and to reunite with a particular loved one, who is coming to visit for two weeks! (I’m a bit more excited about the visitor than the dentist, no offense to my dentist, of course.)

To top it off, today I had a good meeting with the consejo municipal – my first official meeting with them since the introductory one -, my cat is getting fatter every day, and I finished and printed out all of the materials I have to hand in at the Reconnect meeting this upcoming week – including a 6-month work plan, which my counterpart approved of, and which will take me up to Christmas (and probably for years beyond, to be realistic). So things feel wrapped up really well, for the moment; and when I get back from Reconnect and 5 days of vacation it’ll be back to the madness and figuring out what the heck’s going on, except this time in context of actual planned activities! Adelante, friends, adelante.

It sometimes seems like I couldn’t possible deserve such goodness out of life. But I’m thankful for it while it’s around.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Man of Faith, Man of Reason: Part 2

I realize I left the story hanging there with the pobre Mishi, so to cut to the chase: he’s recovered, as far as I can tell happy, and getting fatter by the day. And all the volunteers got their barbecue and potato salad at the 4th of July.

After posting my last blog I went home, and there was Mishi still: curled under a sheet on my bed, drooling, breathing heavily. My family, like the average family of my town, isn’t famously in love with stray animals (nor the hair they leave around - understandably, since they’re worried it’ll give the baby asthma; I’ve tried to tell my host sister that I grew up with my face practically rubbed in cat hair every day, and I turned out fine, but you just don’t want to mess with mama bear); so I was worried they might just kick him out on the street de una vez when I left the next morning for the capital.

What to do? I called my mom in the US, and she suggested something altogether radical: talk to my host family about my fears. So I did, and sure, my host sister said. They’d check in on him now and again, although he’d get the boot if he made himself a nuisance. Feeling somewhat better I sat down at the table and accidentally invited myself – see upcoming post on sharing - to the birthday celebration of my host uncle.

That was when the magical thing happened. A bowl of toasted noodle and chicken caldo and some tamalitos later (I secretly pocketed the chicken to try to tempt Mishi into eating), I mentioned casually that the cat was sick and I was leaving the next day.

Sick? Inquired my host grandmother, who is a midwife (she definitely merits her own post, see upcoming).

Yeah, since three days ago, he has something on his paw, I said, trying to mask my excitement that someone might care about Mishi besides me.

I’ll take a look at him after the meal, then, she said.

Several jokes about pregnant male cats later, and to my amazement, the entire family was gathered in my room at the bedside of the hyperventilating Mishi, absolutely quiet. Even the little cousins, who physically lack the ability to stand still and most commonly could be found chasing Mishi around the yard screaming, were completely reverent.

After a brief check-up with each adult in the family assessing his paw and his other symptoms, my host grandmother summarized: Well, he ‘ll live. It’s because of the pain he’s acting so.

I don’t know what to do! I blurted out. I’m leaving tomorrow at 5 am and won’t be back until Monday. Can he stay in my room until I get back? I didn’t add, if he makes it.

He’s really bad, said my host grandfather.

Well, what are we going to do? asked my host grandmother. My heart jumped in my chest: we.

I suddenly felt surrounded by family, enveloped and nourished by the understanding that they saw and understood my love for this little pest, even if they themselves didn’t feel it; enveloped by the feeling that they would care for this cat for a little while, if only because they cared for me.

Leave me that little box. I’ll take him to the vet tomorrow, said my host grandfather. I didn’t know how to respond; this was beyond all expectations. So I only nodded and agreed to leave the box and money to cover expenses.

Later, after everyone had left, my host grandparents stayed around a little while chatting with me, perhaps sensing my loneliness. You all in your country have much care for animals, eh? commented my grandmother. Here, we don’t have much care for animals. But the Bible says that we should. That left me feeling like a real person, a person of reason and good, not just some foreigner who needed a place to stay. They stayed another few minutes chatting about life in the US, Bible stories, the time the family dog was on his death bed for four days and they wouldn't bother to take him to the vet, but he made it through anyway.

For me this was a powerful experience; I realized that so much of the hardship of the experience was feeling alone and separate. In that last week, amongst all the other cultural differences, I was struggling to not care for a cat in a culture in which stray animals have no importance, realizing I had to care and realizing the personal importance the unconditional acceptance of that cat had for me, feeling that no one would relate to my experience or perspective, and not wanting to burden or alienate others by sharing it.

Yet lesson learned: there can be so much happiness to be had in opening yourself up to others, in letting them hold you up for a little, even when you are unsure of their reactions. And even if you will someday become a story about the gringa who loved that little cat to such an inexplicable degree.