Thursday, April 29, 2010

Planting Potatoes

The first week here was kind of rough. I was on vacation from 'work' Wednesday through Sunday, living with an evangelical family whose work ethic doesn’t let up for Semana Santa, and suddenly without a familiar support network. Needless to say, when on Wednesday night my host mother tossed me an invitation to join the whole family in planting potato the next day, I absolutely jumped at her heels like a lost puppy.

Shortly before 6 am Thursday someone knocked on my door without saying anything. I threw on some layers and flew downstairs and out the door just as they were about to drive off in the family’s large truck. My host father drives this truck to the coast every weekday in order to bring firewood from the coastal plantations to sell here, as our forest laws are somewhat strict (although not enforced that well). We barreled off on the 30-minute or so ride to a family field on the other side of the hills with the sun just rising.

An interesting aspect of life here is land tenure: the vast majority of families have farmland, even if farming is not their primary source of income. As with my family, the land is typically in several small parcels in different areas, even in different municipalities. There is reportedly not much conflict about whose land is whose, either. The people just know and respect the property lines. (Typically marked by a path or a row of trees or shrubs.)

We started off the morning with breakfast: boiled potatoes (obviously), a broth made from some sort of bitter herb, a piece of sweet bread, and a drink made from ground dry corn (a ´coffee´, except the powder is corn instead of coffee bean). The morning was beautiful and frigidly cold.

The kids played while the men set off hauling huge sacks of organically-rich underbrush, extracted from the locally lush forests as fertilizer to the sandy soils which are intensively cultivated with potato, corn, and other ground vegetables such as broccoli and cabbage.

Eventually we began planting: the rows were lined out with a rope tied between two stakes on opposite sides of the field, just as we did at the small farm I worked at last summer. Three men hacked away at the ground with hoes to create a deep trench. Then two people followed from both ends placing potatoes in the trench a standard distance apart, and the rest of us followed them covering the seed potatoes with a thick coating of moist, organic underbrush. Then the men on the hoes covered up our work and set the next line.

The pace of the people on the hoes was tremendous, and all told we planted 70 rows in about six hours. That is not to say the work was not enjoyable. The sun was strong, but a temperate breeze made it bearable. Like farmwork I’ve done before, we slipped into a good rhythm together, always having enough time on each row to take a breath and get ready for the next row while the others do their part. We also took ample breaks for hot atoll (a boiled drink made with large corn pieces) and took a large lunch break with only about a half hour of work remaining.

I don’t think they believed me when I said we planted in the same way back up in Michigan. Yet this was an experience I had to appreciate not only for its universality but its uniqueness, too: how many people in my position can say they’ve had the chance to plant potatoes in Guatemala, under a hot sun and cool breeze, with a view of the mountains for miles around, female companions in traditional traje and a male companion wearing a Che Guevera t-shirt?

Monday, April 26, 2010

Qué es eso?

One of the greatest joys of this experience to date, and thus the reason I’ve chosen him as the lead off portrait, has been the just-turned-3-year-old son of my host family. (Also seemed appropriate, since today is his birthday!) Named for his father, little Rene (aka Renecito aka El Chiquito) is a constant ball of energy, either:

-flashing his famous Casanova-in-training smile
-talking a mile-a-minute in a confusing mixture of Mam, Spanish, and gibberish
-doing something you would really prefer he not, such as dumping raw noodles over the table; squeezing raw eggs with his hands; or turning on and off the oven light repeatedly
-screaming and crying his brains out over some injust infraction against him (of which there are routinely many, as life is inherently unfair when you are 3 feet tall and have several older cousins and sisters).

His energy and ability to bother (or molestar; as his mother likes to remark of him, ¨molesta mucho¨) were written right out of the book of my twin brother Seth, and I think that is one of the reasons this young fellow captures me as he does. I have to acknowledge that I am free to be so enthralled because I now have the upper body strength and height to defend myself, and thus can admire the vitality from a more detached and less terrorized vantage point.

A significant background note to the development of my relationship with Renecito is the local language. Almost everyone here speaks Mam as their first language, and Spanish as a second. Although more people are beginning to raise their children with Spanish, or both Mam and Spanish, a significant number still raise their children speaking only Mam at home, so that many kids still do not pick up Spanish until grade school. Such is the case with young Rene, whose family has raised their kids speaking Mam with the intention that they take pride in the language.

Even so, the young gentleman has not let a minor thing like us not speaking a word in common stand in the way of our budding romance. When I first arrived, he tried vainly for awhile to address me in Mam, before realizing that I was somehow broken and that he himself would be forced to facilitate our communication.

From the first moment on the first day that I dumbly and ignorantly petitioned his intelligent 2-almost-3-year-old brain, ¨Como estás?¨, so began his rapid progression in the Spanish language. As of this moment, we have developed approximately seven conversations in four weeks:

(1) ¨Hooolaaa.¨ ¨Hola.¨ (variation: ¨Hola.¨ ¨¨Hooolaaa.¨)

(2) ¨Cómo estas?¨ [huge smile] ¨Bien, y tú, como estás?¨ ¨Bieeeen.¨ [huge smile]

Variation: ¨Cómo estás?¨ ¨Como estás?¨ ¨Bien¨ ¨Bien.¨

(3) ¨Cuidado, Renecito.¨ ¨Cuidaaaado. [insert riotous laughter]¨

(4) ¨Qué es eso? [insert potential name of object, for example, water] agua-sí?¨ ¨Sí.¨ (…sometimes this exchange occurs a dozen times with the same object before he gets tired of it.)
(¨What’s that? Water-yes?¨ or ¨What’s that? Mango-yes?¨ or ¨What’s that? Fork-yes?¨)

(5) ¨Vaya a cocinar, sí?¨ (¨You go cook, yes?¨) Or, a new favorite variation… ¨Vamos a jugar, si? No vaya a cocinar, si?¨

(6) And, another favorite: ¨Qué es eso?¨ [referring to coffee mug] ¨Taza.¨ ¨Nooo … vaso!¨ (¨What’s that?¨ ¨Cup.¨ ¨No, glass.¨ Also, ¨Zapato.¨ ¨Noo... chancleta.¨ is a recent adaptation.)

(7) And, when my food looks particularly good: ¨Dáme un poco de esto.¨

I have to admit I am a little bit flattered by his constant petitions for definitions, but the irony of course is that he clearly thinks that I am the household authority on Spanish. Nevertheless we have a lot of fun, and I’m looking forward to watching him grow in the next few months.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Fourth Month, Fourth Week, Third Goal

After three months of training and three weeks of life in my town, I finally decided it would be a good idea (for me at least) to start up a blog to share my Peace Corps experience. Three is an auspicious number after all, and Peace Corps blogging itself grows in part from the third goal of the organization:

1. Provide technical assistance to requesting countries.
2. Promote understanding of US culture on the part of other peoples
3. Promote understanding of other cultures on the part of the folks back at home in the US (presumably, many of ye readers).

So with that, some brief background: I am a sustainable community tourism facilitator in an indigenous Maya-Mam community in the Western highlands of Guatemala, where, ojalla, I will be living and working for the next two years.

What I can tell you so far is that my first three weeks here have not been super-easy. Yet it is a unique privelege to live and work here - despite the social challenges and despite the occasionally intense desire to sprint back into the arms of familiarity (…which may or may not be heavily bearded and have an inexplicably intense interest in anything dealing with the word ‘pyroclastic’ or rhyming with ‘isk’).

So on behalf of the third goal of Peace Corps, and my own personal goal of appreciating and focusing the richness of this experience, I plan to structure the blog with two different types of posts: character portraits and cultural reflections. I suspect we’ll see a lot of overlap, however, since people are largely culture and culture is largely people... a ver! And thanks for reading!