Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Man of Faith, Man of Reason

Mixi (mee-shee) Arturo Lopez, a gato callejero, came into my life one evening some three months ago, when I caught him eating an entire raw chicken the family had left on the kitchen table. I was a little freaked out by him at first. What kind of ferocious mini-cat-beast had I encountered, savaging the carcass of that poor departed bird?

I soon discovered that despite his rough exterior, he had a softer side, with urgent cries at my door whenever he wanted some lovin’. For the past three months I’ve been fighting the urge to do more than give him the occasional snuggle. It’s not sustainable, I thought. I’ll be gone in 21 months and he’ll be left here, accustomed to receiving food and moral support at my doorstep. It’d be ridiculous to bring him back to the US with so many homeless animals there.

And besides, I used to comfort myself, he’s totally callejero. He knows how to take care of himself and always has. It’s wrong of me to think of him as my pet.

Nevertheless, Mixi hits me deep down, on the level of a person in need of the feeling of regular love and affection. I realized the weakness of my moral boundaries on Sunday, when he hobbled into my room on three paws, the fourth obviously injured. Despite his troubles, all he wanted to do was hunker down in my lap and purr. I was immediately overwhelmed by the love I feel for him, this tiny ferocious creature who chooses to sit in my lap and snuggle under the covers up against me. And that love quickly turned to worry about what I could do to make him better, and whether it was enough.

After an examination that thoroughly aggravated him, I realized he has some sort of burn or growth on a rear paw which pains him a lot. This was concerning in itself, but yesterday and last night, he did nothing but sleep curled up in a ball on my bed; he wouldn’t purr, just let out the occasional guttural cry. This really worried me. He would never act like this normally.

So take him to the vet an hour away, easy, right? Before he seemed seriously ill, I was questioning whether going to a vet with a street cat made sense in this cultural context, with plenty of people without basic health care... but now that moral qualms have slid away into worry, I'm not even sure I have a way to physically take him.

Today I tried to take him in the morning, but without a carrier to restrain him, he wouldn’t even tolerate the walk to the bus stop. After five minutes he jumped out of the towel-lined cardboard box he'd settled into and sprinted away. I was relieved when we met back up at home and he let me pick him up. I felt bad for having taxed his energy, but also relieved he still had it. Yet I felt so strained by the moment's demands: what to do for him? In a split decision, I had the overwhelming sense he was telling me enough was enough; so I put him down in the covered woodpile, relatively safe from today’s harsh winds and rain, and he snuggled up there. I checked two hours later and he was gone or hidden. I still don’t know where he is.

That’s (as on LOST) where our reason and faith enter, the struggle I’ve been fighting since Sunday. Should I have gotten him to the vet earlier, and at whatever cost? Should I find him and tape him in a box, trap him in a pillowcase, screaming and miserable, and pay a private taxi or beg my host father; if that is the only way to maximize his chances of surviving healthfully? Or is it better to leave him in peace, believe in his own ability to heal, let him to his own instincts to curl up and hide in a good place?

I’m so worried about him. What if last night and this morning’s behavior is a sign of a bad infection or illness in the paw, and he’ll really die without a vet? What if he suffers a lot, alone? Tomorrow I leave at 5 am for the capital, a mandatory dental appointment, and three days of 4th of July celebrations. So that more or less decides it; for now I will have to be a woman of faith. If I’m not, there’s nothing left for me.

Worries aside, I do hope everyone at home has a happy 4th. We'll certainly be celebrating here. Although I'll miss Gramom's potato salad, rumor has it they'll be all manner of United Statesian fare at the party...

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Three Months of… Trash!

Yesterday marks the three-month anniversary of my arrival here in site as a Peace Corps Volunteer! Three months living with my host family, getting to feel like home here, and starting to get a clue about my work... and also three months of making trash. Trash management is a big issue in my community, as for many in Guatemala – with rampant consumerism, poorly organized public education, and ineffective municipal management, many rivers and roadsides overfill with trash.

As an Environment volunteer I’ve already done my fair share of preaching to local school kids about the issue, but as the saying goes… preaching doesn’t do much without the practice behind it. Thus it occurred to me to save my trash in these first months and make myself publicly accountable to how well I’m actually doing with the 4 R’s I talk so much about.


Much to my initial excitement three months ago, my host family habitually separates their organic and inorganic trash for animal fodder, so a picture of my organic trash right now would look a lot like the family cow! We don't compost paper, so I'll put that under the false heading of ¨Inorganics¨ for now.

Drum roll please... INORGANICS!

The True Trash
This is stuff - in the black bag in the upper left hand corner and a dirty cake box - that I just didn’t want to deal with or is highly tainted with organics: It may not be honest, but I plan to take this stuff and drop it off in a public trash can in the nearest big city with a sanitary landfill the next time I’m there. I’ll report back how this goes. The dirty paper I'll give to my host family to burn in their wood stove, if they want it.

The Cheating Factor
I also need to fess up to having added my own toilet paper – some seven rolls in these three months – to the family and office bathroom wastebins. It just wasn’t something I wanted to deal with. We can assume that’s all going to a nearby barranco. I also have used plenty of styrofoam when someone offered me a snack - you just can't refuse generosity here! - and thrown it in the bin when taking it home would make people think I was an alien.

I plan to stuff the soda bottles with the clean plastic packaging I've hoarded these three months (in the two large black bags above) and contribute this to my office’s upcoming ecoladrillo (¨eco-brick¨) drive. Cans make great pencil holders; and clean peanut butter jars for food storage. Possibilities with trash are endless.

Cans, plastic, and paper are recycled in the region. The town’s can-buying man passes in pick-up every Wednesday announcing his presence with much ceremony with his megaphone (yocomprolatashierrolamina...), and I plan to take advantage. My current obstacle with recycling plastic and paper is that cans are about 10x as valuable, so one person uses nowhere near enough paper nor plastic to sell it to anyone. We’re talking about possibly starting a recycling center here in town to sell to buyers in the city, but until then I’ll just be holding onto the stuff.

Analysis and Implications for Future Work
I am pretty satisfied with my trash production, at least with the small amount of stuff I plan to throw away. I seem room for improvement, though; volume-wise my three biggest sources of trash are toilet paper, canned beans, and plastic packaging.

For plastic, my goal for the next months is to try to buy more grains and bread from bulk using re-usable plastic bags; for cans, I'm going to try to make more beans from dried bulk, especially on the wood stove if I can. Really I’d need an environmental engineer to do the analysis for me and tell me whether buying canned beans, making them from dried on the gas stove, or making them on the wood stove is less environmentally costly, but nmot having access to this at the moment, I’m going to guess the more local the better.

I’m not sure I’m ready to tackle the toilet paper issue, but I’ll think about it. At least I’ll be getting some GladRags from the US next month, which in concert with the fabulous DivaCup will eliminate my waste from sanitary pads!

Thanks folks. Keep an eye out for another trash update in another three months! (Yay, something to look forward to...)

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Things I Do That Make Me Strange

One thing I have realized wholehearted while living in Guatemala is that behind the many differences in behavior and attitudes in the 6.8 billion or so of our species on the planet, there exists very legitimate logic, at least to someone; that logic simply may not be clear when you're in the majority looking at the small minority. It took being in the miniscule minority for me to take a look around and realize this simple reality, and, what's more, that not everything I do may be immediately logical to those around me. In my defense, I present the following:

Things I Do That Make Me Strange**:

**I should note that strange is not necessarily perceived as all good or all bad to the folks around me. Just different, is the definite thing.

Exist with light hair, light skin, light eyes, and at least six inches of height over the average person. I try to slouch as much as I can, but generally there isn't much to do about this one.

Live in Guatemala as a single, childless, family-less, 24-year-old woman. I think Peace Corps might have been suspicious if I showed up to staging with a baby swaddled on my back. Although I would have gotten points for effort at pre-country integration.

Wear pants, although not stylish ones, and sneakers, not stylish ones, all the time. I am thinking physical and mental comfort, here; although traje and fancy-sandals are the typical for women here... we'll see - maybe for special occasions?

Wear a sombrero whenever there is a lot of sun out. In the local culture only men wear a wide-brimmed hat. Younger women sometimes wear baseball hats, but the coverage just doesn’t do it for me. Skin cancer! Please! You do see the occasional dame with an umbrella, but I feel even more out of place. I already wear pants. Might as well go full-dude.

Re-use my plastic bags and refuse plastic bags religiously in stores and markets and in the plaza. I also get weird looks for this in upstate New York, though.

Hoard my trash for recycling. What, do you want me to throw it in the river like everybody else?

Express my opinion outright, thus inciting several hours of conversation from those around me beating around the bush until I give them the secret cue that I actually meant what I said. This is one of the finer points of US and Guatemalan cultural differences: direct vs. indirect communication. More related to this one:

Make random comments about things that amuse me, and generally prattle on more than the average person.

Unintentionally state the obvious, despite it being slightly controversial or uncomfortable.

Ask an incredible number of clarifying (or perhaps what seem like prying) questions, due to the massive sense of confusion when a conversation is left completely unfinished. In the beginning I thought everyone else psychically knew what was going on, but I now realize that it’s mostly that don’t let the state of confusion or uncertainty bother them. The bottom line is: Whatever. We'll figure it out when we need to figure it out.

Eat food in front of people without offering them any/skip meals and snack all day. I am actually finding this more and more inexcusable myself. See upcoming post about sharing! It’s one of my favorite things here.

Not have the 3,000-some bus routes of Guatemala automatically memorized. I think the government downloads this info into every Guatemalan’s brain at birth.

And, obviously, I only speak Spanish.

Yet if they only knew all the stuff I keep hidden about myself! And I’m sure, if I only knew all the stuff they think is strange about me, but that they politely hide!

So needless to say, it’s been interesting trying to adapt to life here; starting out conservatively to be safe, adapting as I could, opening up as I got a better sense of which differences could be deal-breakers and which ones just make me a charming weirdo foreigner. After three months here I've adapted successfully in about 1,000 different little ways; but I've also realized that there are about 500,000 other ways that I'll never be able to. But I embrace the best case scenario; cheers to being the "weird" but friendly foreigner.

Letter to a Peace Corps Nominee

This is an excerpt from a letter I sent to a friend, who got her Peace Corps nomination a month ago!

That's fantastic you got your nomination - congratulations and thanks for getting in touch. I think the best thing I did before joining Peace Corps was to talk to as many different volunteers and read as much about other experiences as I could, so keep it up. You should check out, it is a great way to get a sense for PC life. You can also read at, there's lots of info over there, especially on which programs leave when and such.

My perspective, for what it's worth: I have been in my site for almost three months, and Guate for six months with training. I am enjoying Guate a lot, but make no mistake, it has been a difficult experience for as an PCV, and not necessarily in the way you'd expect. Work here has been very slow, and people weren't even really sure what they expected of me. It was hard just to figure out what was going on the first month or two, and I was doing nothing other than showing up in the office each day and trying to get direction from someone; people also constantly spoke and still speak the local language in front of me, so that was isolating – although it is an amazing opportunity to learn a third language, for which I've been grateful.

Slowly I've been making friends, figuring what projects to start pursuing, and learning the local language, so that's been great. I live with a host family in a nice house, with electricity, indoor toilet, gas stove, etc. They're great, they have a 3-year old and for me that's been really fun (and tiring- kids here are pretty interested in what's going on all the time!) Everyone makes a big deal about the physical challenges of Peace Corps, but for many volunteers here there are fewer physical challenges; more it's the social and emotional challenges. I think this took me by surprise because I had envisioned in my head a remote site that was more physically challenging. I kind of wanted that, too, to prove I was tough. Overcoming emotional challenges doesn’t get as many badass points, right?

That said, the odds were against me to have a really rustic site. Most volunteers here have electricity, local access to a variety of foods, running water, an indoor toilet, and maybe even a refridgerator and hot shower. Most host families probably have at least one TV (mine has two, and a semi-functional computer). For security reasons every volunteer has a cell phone - there is good coverage in all but the most remote areas - and many volunteers can get cheap wireless internet through a national cellular-phone company.

The biggest thing is, try to be aware of your expectations, and know that you can't be prepared. You have to just roll with the punches. For example, you may be living in a big or medium town with a huge trash management problem instead of a small, tight-knit community in a remote location. Placements really run the gamut. Communicating with local people may be a lot more difficult than you thought; people may be skeptical of why you're there or just disinterested. You may have to deal with the legacy of other Peace Corps Volunteers who were either really great or deal with repairing the damage of ones who were not well-received. Your counterpart may ignore you and have no idea what you should be doing. At the same time, you can't just jump into your own projects or work without getting to know people, or else the majority of them won't work at all, or at least won't last. So you may sit around your first six months in site without feeling like you're doing anything aside from saying hi to people. It's hard to recognize it, but this isn't a waste of time. Even though you may not feel very productive, your biggest job as a PCV is to make friends, get to know the community, and get to feeling comfortable and happy in site. Without that, project success is less likely and certainly less sustainable.

To get through Peace Corps, you have to be able to go with the flow with what happens, both in what PC tells you and in what happens in your community - things will happen all the time without people telling you, or people will be late, or won't come at all to things you help organize - it's just the cultural style is less organized than in the US. At any meeting you’ll have the folks who are on time, and those who show up an hour after it’s supposed to start. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, just different – for example, people are generally quicker to forgive tardiness and disorder, as well, so I tend to feel less pressured and judged when organizing public gatherings or charlas. Generally speaking, pueblo life here is much more relaxed than my former life in the US, and I like that aspect of things.

You have to learn to enjoy and appreciate the experience for what it is, living in the moments, the simple meals you cook, the people you meet, the conversations with host family, the challenges you overcome, the stomach flus you beat, the ridiculous situations and cultural experiences you just can't believe; you have to live in these things rather than the idea of ¨doing something¨ or ¨helping¨ in your community, because doing that is a slow and sometimes futile process. It is certainly possible to do great things, but you're much more likely to only significantly touch just a few lives, so it's best to try to be ok with that now. Expectations are what undo most volunteers who end up quitting.

That said, Peace Corps is an incredibly rich life experience, and apart from the lows, it has fabulous highs, too. What an amazing privelege and chance to live in another culture - all expenses paid, with fabulous health care - to learn another language (or two!), to learn how ´development´ really does and doesn't work ... It's a great opportunity, even if you will work hard socially and emotionally - and against the occasional stomach virus or parasite, too! - to earn the satisfaction of it.

OK! Really excited for you!! If you have any other questions about Guate or PC generally or medical clearance or whatever, please don't hesitate to let me know.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The Devil's in the details

When I take a minute to reflect, it's occurred to me often that I've been constantly learning in my 10 weeks and change here. And although it's only 10:39 am, I've already learned something interesting today that I wanted to share: the majority of Guatemalans write the number ¨7¨ with a line through it, and read or write ¨7¨ with a straight cap as ¨1¨. Truth be told I've known this for awhile, but being neither an accountant nor math teacher, it never really had to sink in until today. Therein lies the heart of the real lesson: the value of experiential learning (that is, making stupid mistakes!).

Awhile ago, during training, my accountant host father warned me to always write my phone number on paper when going for recarga for my cell phone minutes. He once gave a recarga to a gringo who made a mistake when saying his number, and the gringo had to pay double to get the recarga to his correct number. By now I've got my phone number down, but I have this new gizmo, an Internet modem, and wanted to buy, for the first time, a month of Internet for it! Not knowing the number, it was a surer bet to just write it down, I thought.

This number, which I wrote in US-style on a scrap of paper for my local recarga-man, happens to be loaded with 7's. When the fellow in the store didn't ask me for clarification, I didn't think to give it, and it turned out he punched in all 1's. Thus, $19 down the drain. Bummer. That is like 4% of my monthly income. How interesting the small and seemingly insignificant details that can cause significant cultural misunderstandings! On the brighter side, they say that a recarga won't go through unless someone has that number; so I like to think that someone in need got a load of free minutes today. And at least I'll always remember how Guatemalans write their 7's and 1's.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Business is up lately

Wow. Hard to believe it's been almost a month since I last wrote. I've not forgotten about my blogging mission, and I have lots to share about life in my town. Before picking up with all that, I do feel like the past week deserves some commentary, though.

I expect that with the international media's fascination with disasters, everyone already knows this, but it's been a heck of a week here in Guatemala - especially looking on as a geologist. First thing, Volcán de Pacaya erupted with greater-than-normal force on Thursday (and then Friday), spewing a dusting of ash as far as Coban, cloaking southern Guatemala City in inches of ash, closing the airport, and forcing the evacuation of some 1,900 people in the aldeas closest to the volcano. Although it affected daily life for people in at least three departments, this was a relatively small-scale event with few casualties. Pacaya has had, and likely will have, larger events in the future.

Meanwhile a tropical depression, which by Saturday was a tropical storm, was passing through to mix things up a little. Debido a eso, Cuerpo de Paz put us all on Standfast for just under 72 hours, meaning we had to hang out in our pajamas at home, eat pancakes, and keep an eye on the local situation. I myself was stuck inside with three energetic kids. ¨There's a lot of mud here,¨ one kid commented as we sat watching the news reports on TV of floods and landslides all over the country. ¨Vaya a dibujar, sí?¨ was what Renecito had to contribute, when he wasn't running around the house screaming his brains out unintelligibly.

Luckily, we're on relatively low-grade terrain, and nothing major happened in my municipio - a few road embankments collapsed in the higher villages, drainage canals plugged. Nevertheless, the damage throughout the country - including in my department - was extensive. It was interesting to sit through these two events with the knowledge that even with the training of a geologist, first responder, interest in hazards mitigation, I had nothing practical to contribute to the emergency situation. As Peace Corps volunteers, our first job is to keep safe. As students of hazard mitigation, we know some theory, with muchas ganas to learn about practice, but where does that place us when the volcano's erupting big time or the hurricane's passing through? On the lifeboat, pretty much. And as newbie-gringos in the community, who would call on us anyway?

I suppose more where we fit is between crises - to work on the ground to bring people resources to assess, understand, and plan for the range of possibilities. After all, emergency preparedness is part of a truly sustainable tourism program, eh? But my place in all of this (like everything, it feels like!), is something we will have to wait and see about. There are definitely communities in our municipio that are organizing disaster plans for the rainy season, but I have to be open to the idea that whether or not I'm involved does not have much to do with me!