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.