Friday, December 9, 2011

What to Pack for Peace Corps/ Guatemala

I can hardly believe a year's passed since I last wrote about what to pack. In less than a month we'll welcome a new group of trainees to Guatemala - including, probably, my replacement. Wow! It's exciting and bittersweet. It'll be great to pass along the reins to someone with fresh energy and enthusiasm, but also sad and difficult to close out projects and say goodbye.

Pretty much the all-time most popular blog post I ever wrote was about what to pack for Peace Corps in Guatemala (click here to open). That's gotta be for a reason. In that vein I thought I would link back to that original post, which offers a comprehensive list, and also offer a few quick tips:

(1) Bring your laptop! For security reasons and perhaps wanting to go minimalist, I think many invitees question whether they should bring one. If you're asking yourself, you should. You may not need it urgently, as Internet cafes abound during training, but it is so useful for work, communication, entertainment, and sanity generally. You can cut down your risks substantially by keeping your house secure and simply not traveling with it.

(2) Less is more. You really do not need to bring too much stuff, clothing or otherwise. There are really well-stocked used clothing stores (paca/ropa americana), and stationary stores/markets/supermarkets sell almost anything you could find in the US. Just bring stuff to get you through training, including business casual/semi-formal to wear to the Peace Corps office and to swearing-in.

(3) Enjoy the ritual. Entering Peace Corps is a very exciting and stressful time. I think packing gets a lot of our attention because it's a very physical part of the transition. Don't stress out about it - you're not going to the moon for two years - but if you are stressing about packing, it may be your way of processing the transition. So roll with it and give the packing some tender love and attention if you like.

But above all, remember that just as you will be changed by your experience, very little of what you pack now will probably make it back into your bags as you prepare to come home in 27 months, let alone be important to you then!

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The Tragedy of the Pumpkin Pie


There’s this amazing bakery run by Mennonites* in the closest major city to me. Throughout the year they offer a dizzying array of donuts, breads, cookies, dairy products, condiments, and other assorted baked sweets. And they sell honey in empty, repurposed Jack Daniels and rum bottles. How could one not be all for it? (Yes, I’m talking to you, A!)

Every Thanksgiving they take pre-orders for pumpkin pie. I, being a good US citizen, did my part by pre-ordering three pies. I was thinking to present two for snack at a meeting we were to have on Wednesday before I left for Thanksgiving break… and leaving the other for… general household consumption. There’s just something about being able to have a little taste and sight and smell of home, even if you're far from family.

And I was missing an important meeting on Friday because of Thanksgiving vacation, so in my head the pie was a way to make up for lost points with my colleagues. Oh the accolades and acceptance that pie would bring on the wave of each delighted bite…

The only problem was that they open solely on Tuesday and Friday, from 9 am – 6 pm, which is always a bit shy of fitting into my work schedule, unless I happen to be going into the city for the weekend. And while I tried to beg and plead, I had to get the pies on their timetable.

I had already pumped up this pie to my colleagues who would be at the Wednesday meeting, and I’m a bit of an anguished people pleaser sometimes. I had to deliver. I just had to.

(As with any time of unusual stress, you occasionally fixate on weird and insignificant things during Peace Corps- this was certainly one of my better moments.)

The situation was: meeting on Wednesday morning; pie pick-up on Tuesday or Friday. It had to be Tuesday.

Only problem, I was already double-booked on Tuesday. I had a workshop all morning and a meeting all afternoon. Maybe I could slip away at lunch. Or, worst case, head out a little early and bust down to the city before 6.

As to be expected, everything on Tuesday ran a good hour and a half behind schedule. By the time I got away from my afternoon meeting it was questionable whether I could make it or not. I wanted those pies, though, so I crossed my hopeful fingers and hopped on a bus.

The bus driver I chose must have been ahead of schedule or taking sedatives, because he moseyed down the highway at a cozy 30 miles an hour for six miles, slowing down and personally inviting every single pedestrian on the side of the road to board.

I don’t know if you’ve ever been in a Guatemalan mini-bus, but their drivers are generally not renowned for their moderate pace or adherence to traffic laws. I took this as a sign that the universe perhaps did not want me to have those pies. Or wanted me to get a lesson in patience. Patience was not really what I felt, though, as we crawled down the highway at two-thirds the normal mini-bus speed.

When we finally got into the city, a quick glance at my watch revealed that there was still a good chance that I might get the pies. Hopeful, I sprinted off the bus seven blocks from the bakery, and ran.

Yes, ran, full-out sprint, down the city blocks, spreading confused looks in my wake. In Guatemala the pace is not really conducive to rushing for much of anything, except perhaps a good seat on the mini-bus. And in that case, rushing has more to do with butt size and elbow sharpness than anything else. Despite a fair-sized and growing group of Guatemalan athletes who embrace the sport, running farther than half a block outside of a soccer field is generally something one does to escape personal danger.

I hadn’t run that hard in months, and I liked it. I had been forced to tolerate the mini-bus, and now I was in control: queen of my own pace, captain of my own team, destiny itself. Every stride was pounding out my frustrations at the day, the relaxed bus driver, those pies that might not wait for me.

I breezed past traffic lights, shopping malls and early-evening shoppers, commuters on foot and in their cars, high school couples hidden away in poorly lit corners, almost certain of my victory now.

6:03 pm.

That was when I arrived to find the store closed. Lights off, everything quiet as a mouse. At first I couldn’t believe I had gotten there on time. Or, what should have been on time. It seems unfair that in a country with such a relaxed culture of time, something as informal as picking up a pie should be regulated to the minute. How punctual they were in closing!

I briefly contemplated throwing myself to the ground and screaming in the style of Marlon Brando, A Street-Car Named Desire, but there wasn’t any audience, and it was getting late, and there wasn’t much to do about it. I jogged back to my bus stop, and made it back to site in record time, with a bus driver who was not put off by such minor details as the highway being full of non-moving cars in rush-hour gridlock. He'd just make his own right hand lane – weaving in and out of dirt parking lots and over minor ditches - when he felt traffic was too congested. The drivers are always most insane when you’re not in a rush.

In the end, of course, it wasn't such a tragedy.

My colleagues hardly noticed the snack change. (I might still be a few points short for missing the meeting, though.)

The pies were bought by others, or maybe fed to hungry suntanned Mennonite children.

I saved a few Q. and a few calories. And on Thanksgiving day, I had a delicious slice of apple pie (my total favorite) at dinner.

Truth be told I never have even liked pumpkin pie.

Monday, November 28, 2011

5 Things I'm Thankful For

Thanksgiving isn't a Guatemalan holiday, but it's one of a handful of holidays that Peace Corps gives us off - to find a delicious traditional feast or make one; making one meaning pay some exorbitant cost at Wal-Mart for fresh cranberries, and track down a good pumpkin pie or two. Oh, the lengths one goes to when subconsciously homesick.

This year my visiting cousins and I opted for the first route, at a little gem of a hippie avocado farm outside of Antigua, appropriately named EarthLodge, where for $16 I stuffed myself silly on mashed potatoes, stuffing, cranberry sauce, salad, and apple pie. Worth it!

Back to Thanks-giving, I try to subscribe to the school of thought that we ought to give thanks every day. Even so, it's good to say our thanks out loud with a bit of fanfare now and then, I think. In that spirit, there are many things I'm thankful for, but say I had to pick five, and stick to them;

(1) To get things rolling, I'm thankful for what in English we can only describe as nature. All our oxygen.. drinking water.. fertile soils.. Where would we be without you, tree? And moss and air and rocks and insects and bacteria and everything.

(2) Thankful for them:

(3) Thankful for this little guy and every flea on his head:

(4) Thankful for cell phones, which let me talk to them:

(5) And above all, so thankful for him!

Has living in Guatemala for two years made me appreciate more what I have? I think for the most part, although not necessarily for the reasons you might expect. Four distinct seasons, hot water for washing dishes, a washing machine for clothes and evil heavy blankets, (more) predictable structure in my work and daily life, waking up next to the love of my life every morning. These are things I relish now in their absence.

So while it's been extraordinarily frustrating at times, I have to admit that in the end, I'm grateful for the good and the bad. They come together. A package deal. And maybe that's a sixth thing to be thankful for.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Dia de los Santos

Last year I spent the night of October 31 sitting at the window of my rented room on the outskirts of town, watching as orange pinpricks of candlelight multiplied in the far-off darkness of the municipal cemetery. Curious. I painted a face onto a squash, wondering with muted hope what significance those pinpricks might have for us. Self-congratulatory as I was at the preparations I'd made for that little squash, I felt an acute emptiness where Halloween should have been. And by Halloween, I mean, my friends and family.

The next day I headed off to a nearby city with my mother-in-law, to pay respects at her husband's tomb. That was when I understood more clearly what Dia de los Santos really is about. Not everyone - perhaps not even a majority - strictly believes that their loved ones' spirits return to the earth around midnight on November 1. Even so, in the majority of Guatemalan towns relatives still visit their loved ones' tombs, decorating with flowers and wreaths, leaving candles and trinkets. Some hire bands to serenade their loved ones' tombs. Others bring offerings of alcohol and food, while street vendors dedicate themselves to feeding the living. It's pretty much a carnival in the cemetery.

In the weeks before the celebration, the rain more or less stops, and children go out in full force every afternoon to lift their kites on the fall winds, inviting the spirits of their ancestors to return to Earth for a brief and sacred window of time.

In my town almost everyone decorates and spends the night of October 31 accompanying their relatives' tombs, staying until 7 or 8 am on the 1st. By mid-day the place is deserted. Maybe folks figure that by then the ancestors either will have made it back, or given up trying. It's also darn tiring accompanying the dead all night.

Last year I didn't go. My host family is Adventist, and they don't believe in spirits. You bury your loved ones, you miss them awhile, and that's it. The leftover bones aren't important. The important part was the reconciling your loved ones did while alive. And no quantity of cut flowers on a tomb will do anything for anyone's soul at that point. Or so they say.

(Oddly enough, Adventist children still fly kites. I guess it's not completely lost on them that some rituals are secretly just for the living.)

This year I did go to our local cemetery in the night - invited by a good friend, whose father insists grandpa and grandma be serenaded yearly with the traditional Mayan music they so loved. At 3 am I pulled myself out of bed, and by the time we got to her great-grandparents' tomb, the trio of hired musicians had already been playing 3 hours, a little bonfire keeping them warm in our tucked-away corner of the cemetery.

Words cannot describe the eternal feeling of those moments, the music and smoke and candlelight weaving us all into some enormous tapestry whose existence I've never doubted, even when I could not touch or feel or see it. Although that night, let me tell you, it was palpable.

At 7 am, on the heels of daybreak, they served hot tamales and tea to everyone assembled, and later on I traveled to that same nearby city, to help arrange flowers once again on my father-in-law's family tomb, to revel in the massive crowds gathered in observance of a common denominator.

I'm not sure why, but I adore Dia de los Santos in Guatemala. I adore the communal ritual of the cemetery, the flowers, the street food. Maybe it's because it serves as a reminder that while it's true we're alone in death, we needn't be alone beforehand.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Why I Love Peace Corps #1

One series I've been contemplating is "Why I Love Peace Corps." Some posts will be sincere, others a bit tongue-in-cheek, but I'll let you all judge. Without further adieu:

Why I Love Peace Corps*, #1:
You can use children as free labor to decorate your house.

In a matter of an hour and a half tonight I had an entire wall covered in charming drawings, and all I had to do was give them scrap paper and put up with a little bit of screaming. Felices as we say here. For that matter, you can ask these kids to sweep your house, mop the floors, wash the windows, fold your clothes, and do the dishes and they will do it. Some will even think it's fun before a more lazy/rowdy kid in the bunch points out that, hey, if we were doing this in our own houses right now it would probably be considered work. But I try to draw a line somewhere.

*I should specify off-the-bat that some of these reasons will be more specific to "why I love living in a small Mayan town in the highlands of Guatemala for two years", however Peace Corps is one of few opportunities that ever would have allowed me to do that, and certainly was the most accessible opportunity.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Time flies

Wow, I cannot believe it's been more than a month since I got home from NY. Since then I've weathered a week straight of rain, neared completion on the first phase of our sign project, pushed along the guide training class, sat in on way too many meetings, celebrated Dia de los Santos, had to find a replacement for my netbook that died, baked some killer pizza in my oven, and hosted a 5-day photography camp for 16 adolescents. Times have been busy.

Since my computer crapped out the blog topics had been piling up without release, both in my brain and on the computer. Now that the power's flowing through my motherboard and we survived photo camp, I'm planning to send out a few posts in a row to make up for the radio silence of the past months.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

The sun'll come out

For the last week we lived what I think most would characterize as a generally depressing weather situation: an unrelenting oscillation between pouring rain, drizzling rain, and clouds threatening to rain.

I should say straight off, rain is a blessing. There’s nothing nicer than lying back in your bed at night, falling asleep to the rain on your roof, rejoicing with the thirsty corn, the thirsty forest, the thirsty people. The point of this post is not to rag on the rain, as I am sure there have many heartfelt prayers of thanks to the rain during mankind's time on this planet.

Even so, after a week of waking up to rain, you notice that it feels like you’re on an extendedly crappy camping trip in the Adirondack mountains of upstate NY during a wet spell. When you live in an almost windowless cement box, you become permeated with cold, moldy damp. A leak burns out the light in your kitchen, which won’t be fixed until the puddle on your roof can dry out. Neither countertops nor floors seem worth cleaning. Showering is an unappealing task in an environment, which, both inside and outside, maintains itself at a breezy 55 degrees. Baskets are molding, your clothes are molding, you yourself seem to be molding.

With a regrettably non-functional laptop and your whiny cat as sole companion, you can only bundle up, accept a dip in productivity, and hold onto the knowledge that someday the sun will come out. Read a book, make some hot chocolate, and get over that week's doomed to-do list.

Growing up in a thoroughly climate-controlled environment, with TV to distract me from whatever change in weather might come my way, I didn’t really understand until now the literal meaning behind Annie’s famous song - nor the importance of holding on to that mantra of optimism.

I get it now, because the sun came out yesterday. It’s still out now. For no reason, other than that, I feel sublimely happy. I know I'm not the only one, because most of my colleagues posted Facebook status updates about it within two hours of the first rays of sunlight. (You truly can't imagine that collective sigh of relief. It was palpable.)

After a week living under the pouring rain, I don't need a PhD in physiology to say that we are hard-wired to need sunshine. Nor do I need formal study in anthropology to understand why a culture would place the sun at the head of their pantheon.

The sun really is everything for us. Not just the basis of almost every food chain on the planet, and very nearly everything we eat, nor just the driving force of our environment. It's the basis of our daily rhythms as well. I can say it now, but I can only understand it because I lived it then. The sun sustains not only our physical being, but our spiritual as well. It's no small coincidence.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Born in the USA

Tomorrow I embark for my second and probably last vacation home during Peace Corps. Hard to believe I have only six months left, but things are chugging along nicely. Have some friends, have some projects, have some Masters' data. And it seems like the increase in amount of stuff I've been asked to bring back from this trip is a quite a good proxy for my degree of integration into the community.

So that everyone can see just how integrated I am (re: just how comfortable people are taking advantage of my near-inability to say no), a non-abbreviated list of things people have asked me to bring them from the US:

-Two nice digital cameras
-Six old digital cameras (Actually, I'm pushing this one too, it's for a photography camp we'll be doing in November!)
-Half a dozen Victoria's Secret bras
-High-quality hair shears of a brand which starts with "W"
-A special camera case**
-A netbook**
-A special perfume, neither the name nor brand of which the person could name, but supposedly they'll bring me the empty bottle tomorrow morning before I leave**
-A small boom microphone for videocamera
-A sound system (this was clearly shot down, I don't think Delta's going to let me pack that as checked baggage, and it's not like Maryland or wherever the system is stored would be just half an hour away!)

**These items were, not too unpredictably, asked for today. Am I the only one who thinks that requesting a 3,000 Q. computer is not a casual transaction to slip in between "When do you get back?" and "How's the weather there this time of year?" ?

Last trip's request for an English-Spanish digital translator was clearly mere child's play. At the risk of making everyone think it's effortless to find anything anywhere in the US on short notice, I'll do my best to help them out. Next week I'll be on hiatus to celebrate my good friend's wedding and hold my grandma's hand while watching Jeopardy, but when I get back I'll let everyone know how it went!

Saturday, September 17, 2011


My experience has matured somewhat since I last wrote about Independence Day celebrations here in Guatemala, but the outward festivities were basically the same this year: gymnastics contests, pre-schoolers in pageant evening gowns, plastic flags, talk of the "patria", young men left to make what they can out of their drums and trumpets. After a year here, the band practice seemed a lot less noisy, I have to admit, and the national and municipal elections certainly stole a lot of attention from the crepe-paper quetzal-bird and ceiba-tree confection. Yet all in all, I can't say the celebration was much different from last year.

What got me thinking this year was a talk I attended at a Spanish school in a nearby city on the morning of September 15, where a university professor spoke on the basic history of Guatemalan independence from Spain, and the subsequent dynamic between the Guatemalan-born full-blooded Spaniards (criollos) who primarily led the revolution, and the rest of the primarily Mayan and Ladino (of mixed heritage) population.

At the end he left open the question: "Is Guatemala really independent yet? From what, and to whose purpose?" It's an important, complex question- one that many people lost their lives to during the decades-long civil conflict; and one that few people seem to ask out loud that often, for a variety of reasons.

Later on, I went to the parade. To someone with my background, big parades with inflatable advertisements from large corporations, street vendors peddling tiny flags, and polished high school marching bands with chubby, unhappy sousaphone players, signal business as usual. What could be wrong in a country where the speakers blare pop music and advertising jingos from the back of slow-moving pick-up trucks, beautiful scantily-clad models pass out flyers advertising the latest deals from big box stores, sons sit on their fathers' shoulders, and mothers buy their children corn-on-the-cob?

That's to say, it was an easy atmosphere in which to forget the professor's final thoughts. But there was a moment, looking out over the marching young Ladino and Mayan men, proudly high-stepping in colonial Spanish uniforms, celebrating their independence from that very state, that jogged my memory. Floating past the happy families, children whining out the "gimmes", vendors hunched over their plastic wares, the questions lingered: Just whose independence are we celebrating? And just who has an interest that these questions don't get asked?

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Reflections on Development, I

I wrote this post about two months ago, at the beginning of the reforestation season.

Today I went with fifth and sixth-graders from the local girls’ school to help out the park guards with the first tree planting of the year. It was a great day, starting with a 5 km walk and about 1000 ft of elevation gain, and ending with the same trek in reverse. On the way down I stayed back to chat with the two sixth-grade teachers, both funny, creative, open-minded guys with whom I’ll be collaborating on a SPA project this year.

About 2/3 of the way down, we ran into a little boy, maybe about 6 or 7 years old. The knees of his pants were torn out and dangling in flaps over his shins, his left rubber boot was splitting in two down to the ankle, his face and clothing were grubby; he carried a heavy load of firewood on his forehead strap. And he was laboring hard, completely alone, at an hour when kids should be in school.

I would have liked to do something, but being an outsider, I really had nothing to do except smile at the kid and keep moving. The teacher, in exchange, was able to handle the situation a little more. He spoke to the kid gently in Mam, shouldered his load, and carried it until his path diverged from ours.

After we parted ways the teacher asked me, “What do you think of children’s rights in Guatemala? Should child protection come and cart that kid’s father off to jail for sending his kid to work when he should be in school?”

It was easy for me to judge that situation – I automatically might have been angry at his caretakers for being irresponsible, or pardon them automatically, assume they're so poor that they have no choice. But talking with the teacher, I realized the situation was probably more complex.

The teacher and I talked about how children in the center of town do less physical work now and are more self-centered, disrespectful, and lazy than ever before. We agreed
that hard work is necessary to produce a well-rounded kid, and on par, a walk to cut firewood can be just as educational as a day in school. But we also agreed that children need the opportunity given to them by that sixth grade diploma. And that when they go out in the woods, they need someone to protect them and teach them the ropes.

I don't know why his caretakers sent him out to get firewood today, but my kneejerk reaction and the subsequent analysis with the teacher reminded me of something crucial that I forget sometimes, especially with the emotional charge of such an encounter. That's to say, “development” is not a simple linear process. It's not something that we as outsiders can judge from a first glance at a child, a community, or a country. Development is not just trading in ripped sweat pants for new ones, sorrow and suffering for our idea of happiness, work and pain for school and our idea of advancement. It's not just eradicating "poverty" and calling it a day.

Real development is a circular, complicated process. The gaining of one thing can often mean the loss of another; one "solution" can bring ten unique problems of its own. If we want to be involved in improving the lives of our fellow global citizens, we have to do more on the ground than open up a pocketbook. Real development requires that we move ourselves out of the center of the picture and get to know the community; that we set aside our pre-conceived notions of the "good life"; that we acknowledge there are different forms of poverty; that we ask the community not just to identify needs and possible solutions, but to identify and celebrate their actual strengths.

All of this is not easy. I'm not going to pretend it is. I'm not going to pretend that I am capable of doing it always. But it's necessary if the goal is to achieve something in the long term for the people we're serving, rather than just achieving something short term for ourselves.

So I encourage you. If you come here, take a second look at that little kid. Don't just slip him a dollar and your sympathies. Realize that his quality of life is not written on his face, but in the smile of his mother, the warmth of the tortillas she gives him, the blisters on his toes, the cough that won't go away because there's no medicine in the health center
, the laugh of his little brother when they play soccer, the weight of the hoe as he helps his father plant potatoes. Things that you had better know before you pity him, or before you think you’re capable of making his life better.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Proyecto Chakana: From Mexico to Argentina

Happiness is a shared toothbrush holder.

Last month I had the great luck to host three travelers from a group called “Proyecto Chakana” – two Argentinians and a Spanish gal who are slowing working their way down from Mexico to Argentina, documenting culture, ecology, and issues of social and environmental justice along the route in photo, blog, radio, and video.

For those who don't know, the chakana is the "Incan Cross" - which is an iteration of the 4 cardinal points which were and are a central spiritual symbol for many indigenous groups throughout the Americas. With their journey the Proyecto Chakana folks hope to explore these cultural similarities, document shared threats to ecological and cultural preservation, and especially give voice to popular movements that have had the courage to organize themselves in hope of a better and more just future.

Something I really admire about these guys is that they travel with a purpose, but also with the openness to see where the journey takes them, to extend themselves, to look into little corners and not just run on by briskly checking off guide book highlights. (If it’s any indication, they stayed in Mexico for a year and a half!) What you learn as a PCV is that there’s a lot to be learned at the edges – in the places where you wouldn’t have thought or known to look while planning on the couch at home.

On the personal end, taking care of a house solo and working 50 hours a week can get old, so it was awesome to have such conscientious visitors around. They cooked, cleaned, and brought an excellent music library, great conversation, and quite a few movies. Aside from nightly dinners, they kept me plenty occupied: hiking, playing cards, chatting, introducing them to locals. And they made me a sweet macrame bracelet and hair braid. Score! (Did I mention they are super creative and sell macrame ?)

I’m glad to have my bottom floor back, but I’ll never forget their time here. If you'd like to know more, you can check out their videos and keep in touch with their journey here:!

(And also do check out the websites of two neat couples they introduced me to who are on similar Mexico – South America missions: “Permacyclists” -a Belgian/US combo with the goal of documenting environmental solutions - and “Viajero Sustentable” an Argentinian/Mexican pair with the goal of making a directory of sustainable tourism sites. Cool folks!)

Friday, August 26, 2011

The Guatemalan Feria

What happens when Guatemalans get together to celebrate their patron saints? Fireworks lit off within 10 meters of their 450-year-old church, that's what happens. (As an aside, when the first shell went off, I nearly hit the ground, certain that some sort of gang warfare had just broken out. The man next to me commented, "Don't worry! It's just fireworks." I might have pointed out that in New York, we rarely light fireworks 30 feet away from a crowd of 400 people. But no need to get into all the complexities of cultural differences in risk perception, or we'll be here all night.)

My reaction to feria last year might be chalked up to cultural differences. The whole thing struck me as crowded, uninteresting, and mildly grungy. The streets were filled with rigged carnival games, marimba bands, "costume dances" where grown men gyrate their hips for hours on end while dressed as Xena Princess Warrior, ladies selling peanuts and bland biscuits in ring shapes. Impromptu cantinas covered in Gallo beer advertisements, food stands selling lots of exotic stuff that scream trouble for the digestive tract, strange drunk men, carnival rides ready to break apart in mid-air and throw their riders to certain death. In case you don't get the idea, space is rented to the vendors in units of 1 square meter. A Guatemalan feria is a US county fair or street festival on steroids.

Now that I've come to know the feria, I could talk about it from the perspective of the town and its significance in local culture, for better or for worse. I could talk about the human need for community and collective ritual and holidays centered around those things. I could... But instead, feria comes to mind this year more from own perspective. This year I realized my need for community; my need for collective ritual; my need for a holiday I could participate in. This year the feria struck me differently.

It might be that this was my first feria living in the center of town, away from my Evangelical host family, my first feria free to experience the Catholic culture here. My first feria since I've made good friends here. My first feria where there were people I was excited to run into on the street and pass time with. My first feria where I had someone to drink a beer with, watch fireworks with, eat cheese-filled tortillas with.

It might be that this was my first feria where rather than being surrounded by strangers, rather than feeling isolated by fright or indignation or indifference, rather than being the unwanted foreigner, I was finally invited to participate among friends.

It might be that this was my first feria where it felt like my town, and not just someplace I was living.

It might be that I was finally home.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Gender and identity in highlands Guatemala

One of the gals?
One of the guys?

I sometimes forget that I am a light-skinned, grotesquely tall alien. Then someone takes my picture in a group with local people and I’m reminded why small children usually either react to me with fascination or abject fright.

Yet beyond that, I put up these two pictures to illustrate an issue of identity that has been central to my experience here – gender.

I grew up in a small town in upstate New York wanting to think that my gender didn’t matter, that being female didn’t make me significantly different from any of my male peers. I distinctly remember the first week of third grade, when my teacher asked for some strong boys to help her hand out the math textbooks. The comment struck a strong chord – placed by whom and when, who knows – but I put my hand up and volunteered; and later that year I went on to beat all but two of the boys in my class in arm wrestling. I still remember so clearly those early affirmations that gender in itself is not a limitation.

So I guess it was odd for me to experience, coming here, that local attitudes surrounding my gender really did limit me, much more so than in the US. Having always wanted to be “gender-blind”, I didn’t really perceive it a lot at first. Yet over time I became more aware of the general inflexibility of gender roles - and accompanying attitudes. I also became more aware of my place as a pant-wearing female, smack dab in the middle of the two gender worlds, seemingly receiving the worst of both of them, especially as a foreigner to boot.

In a place where identity is assessed principally on two axes (first, foreigner or local; and later, female or male), I felt especially out of place, since locals – once having identified me as a foreigner - could not confidently place me on the female/male axis. I felt unwanted in either camp: uninvited to go work in the woods, even when I asked; uncomfortable walking alone at night; heckled by drunks in certain neighborhoods; plagued by the sense that my counterpart was frequently ignoring my comments and proposals; questioned by everyone whether I was afraid to live on my own. Yet neither was I invited to chit-chat with my female counterparts, or asked to help them at events, and am still met with skepticism that I can do my own cooking and cleaning.

It seems like I ought to offer some sort of breakthrough, a turning point to all of this; but there hasn’t been one, really. I’ve simply gone about figuring my identity here by getting to know more and more people, trying to prove that there are things I am capable of even if I can't fold 100 tamalitos in an hour or plant an acre of potatoes by hand in half a day. Overall, my experience hasn't been tough as some have it out in the really remote villages, and being female has given me a distinct advantage with the wonderful women's groups here.

And I've had the numerous little rebellions: taking joy in carrying heavy things in front of and with my counterpart and the park guards, wielding a machete, hiking fast with open enjoyment; fixing technology; wearing corte when it's appropriate; and always requesting in a quiet but firm way the respect I feel I deserve - not as a foreigner or a woman, but as a person.

[Note: 4/22/2013: As I remained longer in my community, I realized that like in many cultures, age was another important aspect of identity and social hierarchy. Being male would not have automatically brought me respect.  I still think that being a foreigner, first, and of ambiguous-but-female gender was more principal to the way I was perceived than age.]