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.