Friday, July 29, 2011

A Day in the Life: Walking in the Woods

A day in Peace Corps is definitely going to vary depending on your country, community, and program. It’s also going to vary a lot by individuals. So the day I share here isn’t that representative of a “normal” day, because such a thing is hard to define! But it does represent an important part of the whole experience. Let's call it, "Walking in the Woods".

6:30 am: My first alarm goes off. I snooze it twice, springing out of bed at 6:50 with 10 minutes to get to the muni.

7:12 am: I roll around to the muni, my counterpart isn’t in sight, the muni pick-up is gone, and seems to have left me. Wondering how I’m going to get up to the forest to give the educational walk I’m scheduled for. I wait for my guiding partner to show up.

7:20 am: I fumble through an unnecessary but gratifying conversation in Mam to buy two rice paches for breakfast in the plaza. I eat them standing there on the spot.

7:31 am: Turns out my counterpart went to get saplings in the municipal tree nursery. He arrives, we pile in and are on our way up to the forest. My partner and I separate from my counterpart at a crucial junction - he continues on to reforest with another school - and we walk about 20 minutes through the forest to reach the recreational center.

8:29 am: We make it to the center. Plenty of time to sweep inside, flush toilets, and brush up my partner on the plan for the hike.

8:31 am: Surprise! The kids arrive in pick-up truck, rather than on foot as we expected. All 25 mob us, greeting us in the traditional manner, bowing their heads so that we can touch them one by one. They’re all considerably younger than we thought, 1st and 2nd graders rather than 6th graders.

8:57 am: The kids have shaken out the arrival excitement, stored their bags in the visitors’ center and are assembled on the basketball court bleachers. Since we've only really practiced a curriculum geared for adolescents and adults,, I decide on the spot to focus the walk on the theme of “the senses” and paying attention to the forest. My partner isn't comfortable improvising, and I don’t speak Mam - the kids' primary language - so we’ll see how it goes with me leading and her doing evaluations in Mam.

10:30 am: We arrive back to the visitors’ center. The hike went well, aside from the constant distraction of blackberry bushes, which the kids attacked with uniformly ruthless enthusiasm. (Yeah. Leave No Trace. Forget about that one.) I feel like although it was a short time, most of the kids felt a spark, that precursor to a positive emotional connection with the forest and a great step to actively caring for it. At a minimum they learned what a volcano is, and why it's not good to cut down the endangered Guatemalan Fir (Pinabete)! I have to remind myself that each walk is just one tiny step in a long process.

11:00 am: The two teachers prepare lunch, steak with tortillas, orange soda, and refried beans from a can.

1:15 pm: Lunch eaten, we close up the visitors’ center and the teachers give us a ride back to town.

2:19 pm: We missed the muni’s lunch break, but I go home to relax and end up reading awhile.

3:30 pm: I arrive back in the office. Despite the Friday atmosphere, my officemate is working on a revision of a trash management plan due Monday. I take advantage of the moment to discuss with her and my counterpart about setting aside funds for trash management in the park.

5:00 pm: As usual, ideas are zig-zagging around without direct treatment, visitors interrupt the train of thought, and when the hour arrives, we leave without any really firm agreements. What’s more important, after all? Work or the weekend?!

5:15 pm: I arrive at home. My head is full– the last week of the month always feels this way. But writing out my to-do list and next month’s calendar will wait for Saturday morning, and I’m glad I don’t have any real plans for the weekend. I eat a snack and write for awhile.

8:13 pm: My boyfriend shows up online! But first I’ve got to make dinner.

9:30 pm: I eat and we chat a bit. This is always the highly anticipated event of the day.

10:31 pm: Off to sleep! Looking forward to a relaxing Saturday morning. And then it's back to the woods again on Sunday!

Friday, July 15, 2011

Guest Post: Mom & Dad's 'Hobbit' Adventure, Part 2

In Mom and Dad's 'Hobbit' Adventure, Part 1 Mom talked about their trip itinerary and the highlights of their trip. Here she addresses her "most memorable experience", as well as some of the challenges and lessons learned.

Hobbit Adventures in Guatemala, Part 2

My vote for most memorable experience:
Steph’s birthday party, attended by approximately 100 of her friends, colleagues, and neighbors. It was an overwhelming, exhilarating and Monty Python-esque introduction to her town, including:

-- Steph’s posse of
energetic and enthusiastic neighborhood kids, who appeared en masse the moment we arrived and who unloaded rental chairs, swept the floors, and made decorations for the walls.

-- Our introduction to Oliver the cat: the “gifts” he left strategically placed around the house, apparently as a token of his displeasure at being left alone for several days.

-- The thick cloud of smoke that filled the house when Steph’s friends decided to heat a large pot of water for tea on the woodstove (never before used by Steph), and discovered too late that the flue was not working properly.

-- Awkward but wonderful conversations in a mix of beginner English and phrase book Spanish.

-- Songs and speeches - a standard feature of any Guatemalan party. Don and I were called upon to make remarks, which Steph appropriately embellished while translating.

-- The ladies who, with no advance plan, seamlessly fed 100 people (including an inebriated fellow who wandered in off the street) in a room the size of a one car garage.

-- The hospitality and generosity of Steph’s friends, neighbors, and colleagues, who greeted us so warmly and who brought many gifts.

Guatemalan challenges:

o- Remembering not to use the tap water for teeth brushing.

o- Remembering not to eat raw/undercooked veggies (and the consequences of ignoring this rule).

o- The unavailability/unreliability of hot water, even in the fancier hotels.

o- It’s a noisy place! Traffic, thin walls, loud parrots/roosters/music

o- It’s a crowded place! People are used to cramming into small spaces – chicken busses, pickup trucks, markets, sidewalks, etc. North American concepts of personal space do not apply.

o- It’s a traffic free-for-all! As Mario pointed out, Guatemalans do what they want when they want, without much regard for traffic rules and the personal safety or comfort of others. There is no hostility or malice involved, no yelling at other drivers or pedestrians; it’s just an accepted fact of life.

Lessons learned:

-- Cleanliness is a relative concept. I now understand what Steph meant when she arrived home at Christmas and announced that she would eat off our kitchen floor.

-- Time to start studying Spanish! I had forgotten how frustrating it is not to have the words to express oneself. Communication is the key to understanding each other, and having the right words is the first step.

-- Having more options and more amenities does not necessarily translate into having more happiness. The people we met in Steph’s hometown seem very content and fulfilled, even though they live in what most Americans would consider “Third World” conditions. Since arriving home I have been struck by how the proliferation of choices and “conveniences” seems to increase stress, rather than reducing it.

-- It was humbling to realize how much I have taken for granted and how little I have understood about the lives of people in other countries. Experiencing another culture (even in the limited way that we did) opens the door to real understanding.

Thank you, dear Steph, for creating this amazing experience, and for your endless patience in guiding us through our Guatemalan adventure. As any true adventure should, this experience has changed the way we think and feel. My heart and my head are full of Guatemala, and I will never be the same.

Editor's final note: Seeing the impact it has on my parents, I see how direct, personal, human exchange between people of different cultures is crucial for the future of our increasingly connected species. It's true you have to be careful as a tourist in a country like Guatemala not to get over your head - but when you push yourself just a little bit out of your comfort zone, the lessons can be profound.

So take a day or a week or a month. Get to know the world from another culture's point of view. The lessons will almost certainly linger long after the adventure's finished!

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Guest Post: Mom & Dad's 'Hobbit' Adventure, Part 1

A month ago my parents landed on my doorstep for an unforgettable two weeks of intercultural exchange, great coffee, and family bonding. Read on to hear from my mom about our itinerary and trip highlights.

Hobbit Adventures in Guatemala, Part 1

Those of you who read this blog know Steph as a person who seeks out new challenges and who embraces the adventures that come with traveling to new places and meeting new people. So it would be reasonable for you to assume that she learned her adventurous ways from her parents. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Don and I are hobbit-like in our devotion to the familiar and our anxiety about the unknown. The words of Bilbo Baggins (from Chapter 1 of The Hobbit) come to mind: “We are plain quiet folk and have no use for adventures. Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner! I can't think what anybody sees in them.” Of course, we all know how that story turns out…

So imagine our amazement when in early June we found ourselves in Guatemala, having the biggest adventure of our lives. (Editor's Note: In case you are wondering, the picture above isn't an actual town. It's the "Mayan village" at La Azotea, a cultural center/coffee farm & museum outside of Antigua!)

Our Itinerary:

June 1 and 2: Arrived at the Guatemala City airport, where Steph met us and arranged for a taxi to the lovely resort town of Antigua, about an hour away, where we spent two days and nights.

June 3 and 4: Took a four hour shuttle bus ride from Antigua to the city of Xela (also known as Xelajuj, also known as Quetzaltenango) in the highlands. It was like traveling to the top of the world! Spent two days exploring Xela and visiting with the family of Steph’s sweetheart (fiancĂ©?).

June 5, 6, and 7: Arrived in Steph’s town about a half hour drive from Xela. Met 100 of her friends and colleagues at her birthday party (see more on this below!). Stayed at Steph’s apartment, visited her worksites and got an up-close look at her day-to-day life in Guatemala.

June 8, 9, and 10: Returned to Xela where we met up with Mario, our host and guide for our stay in the Boca Costa (Pacific Slope) region of Retalhuleu. We stayed at Mario’s beautiful nature preserve and coffee farm, Reserva Patrocinio. We visited Comunidad Nueva Alianza (a coffee and macadamia cooperative where one of Steph’s fellow Peace Corps volunteers lives and works) and a Mayan archeological site, Tak’alik’ Ab’aj. Mario drove us back to Xela on Friday, where we celebrated Steph’s birthday with family at her favorite restaurants and cafes.

June 11-12: Returned to Antigua by shuttle and spent an afternoon and evening enjoying the town, before bidding a reluctant farewell to Steph and Guatemala.

Here are a few of the many highlights from our trip:

o- The shuttle van ride from Antigua to Xela over breathtaking mountain heights, with some interesting young adventurers as our fellow passengers.

o- The birthday party for Steph’s future mother-in-law in her postage stamp -sized living/dining room in Xela, with 8 adults, three children, four birthday cakes, and a riotous mix of Spanish, German, and English conversation.

o- The striking beauty of the volcanoes and the tropical forest at Reserva Patrocinio.

o- Getting to know Mario, owner of Reserva Patrocinio, who is the antithesis of “business as usual” in Guatemala. (In other words, his goals are ambitious but realistic, and he has the skills, focus, and resources to accomplish them.)

o- Spending so much uninterrupted quality time with our accomplished, intelligent, resourceful, perceptive, fun-loving, and compassionate daughter. [parents are required to say these things!]

Look forward to Part 2 to hear about the lessons that ultimately came out of the experience for my parents!