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...