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!)