Saturday, December 1, 2012

The Spider and the Broom

It's been seven months since I've written and there are a lot of confused, joyful, stressful, perfect moments in that gap. For awhile I was busy adapting to being back in the US.  It takes a long time; maybe more so for me because a close family member passed away right before I came back. The process feels more complete now as I write up my Master's project -- every day the maps and data seem to chisel some new splinter of memory off into my new (old) life.

When my mind wanders to my experience in Guatemala, I think of sweeping the dusty corners of my house in my last days in town. Grandma had just passed away, and sweeping was a welcome respite from thinking.  There was one stairwell corner that had been particularly neglected, and in my sweep of the house I battered it hastily, sending a spider skittering out of her web and into a hole in the corner.

I remembered her then; that spider had lived there for nearly a year. In that moment my power to upend an entire existence with a thoughtless broom-sweep seemed really profound. I bore no malicious intention -- I had just come along doing what I thought I needed to do.

It was clear in that moment that we share more with the spider than I thought. Some days will be ours to tend our webs in peace, with the flies cursing us. Some days will be ours to scurry from the sweeper, cursing the broom, while the flies move on in peace. As we go about our business, we're all vulnerable to a variety of forces, and any appearance to the contrary is a question of scale and magnitude. While scale and magnitude are highly significant, I think a lot of the injustice in the world is born of denial of the simple reality that we are all vulnerable.

Some day I would like come back to this blog and fill in the substantial holes left here by my experience. I think in some ways I didn't do much justice to the general panorama of Peace Corps, or development, or especially the stories of the people I met in the highlands of Guatemala. For now I'll leave it at that, though: the spider and the broom.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Made it Back!

Today marks the three-week anniversary of my arrival back home to the US. After 27 months living in Guatemala, I landed on my parents' door-step (well, at their airport) with 85 lbs. of luggage and an adorable and thoroughly traumatized cat. None of this was really anywhere near as hard core as it may sound.


January 3, 2010...

Leaving Rochester for Washington, DC with 45 lbs of luggage. I apparently thought I was going on a two-year backpacking trip. Or wished I were.

April 4, 2012..

Same backpack. Pretty much everything else is different.

Luxurious car ride home. Oliver was just glad to be free after 13 hours inside a 10x20x10 in. mesh handbag.

If there's anything I learned in Peace Corps, it's to take adjustments slowly, so that's what I've been trying to do. Even so, the last three weeks have been a bit of a whirlwind: enjoying so many little luxuries, big emotional milestones like my grandma's memorial service, and getting married (err.. no worries, just the small civil prequel to the big celebration this summer), unpacking and packing back up to move to grad school, the two-day drive up here, unpacking, tracking down housewares all over town...

Truthfully I've only begun to adjust to my grandma's passing, to being back in a totally different culture and context and role, to living with another actual person with distinct needs and desires! (What's that all about?)

Most days I have moments of feeling incredibly blank, as though I can't remember who I am or what I'm doing, almost like a DVD that's skipping. Most days, though, I also catch glimmers of the wide open potential of the future I've imagined, and those glimmers remind me that I am me, here, taking the steps I have to toward that future.

I'm just keeping in mind the common wisdom in my site in Guatemala:

little by little.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Little Luxuries as a Returned Volunteer

Wow- it's hard to believe I've been back in the US now for a little over two weeks. The time has gone by fast. In general I'm happy to be back, but I'm definitely still adjusting.

It's been a huge transition for me with my grandma passing away, being reunited for the long-term with my significant other, moving back up to graduate school, and giving up the fulfilling role that I had with Peace Corps in environmental organizing.

Among all the confusing/discouraging personal and cultural changes, there are certainly many little luxuries to be excited about. On that note I'll leave you with a list of them:

(1) Hot water out of the tap!

(2) Clean water out of the tap!

(3) Laundry with a washing machine and dryer!

(4) The variety of delicious foods (ie. cheap convenience foods and restaurants...)

(5) Recycling bins!

(6) Carpeting and couches

(7) Less dirt to clean...

(8) Not sticking out all the time (or any of the time).

(9) Family and friends

Friday, March 30, 2012

Saying Goodbye

I knew Peace Corps would be difficult when I signed up.

I knew saying goodbye would be difficult, too.

I had no idea, however, that I would have to make the most difficult goodbye of my life not in site, but to someone at home just five days before I got there.

I had spent 26 months in Guatemala. You can imagine my shock when my parents told me the day after COS conference that my grandma had been diagnosed with late-stage melanoma, that it had metastasized in her bones and lungs and little corners where it had no business being. After the bureaucratic surprises from Peace Corps in January, and general surprises and stresses of finishing up, this seemed like a practical joke from the universe. Good one!

At the time it was difficult to process. At first the doctors gave her about six months, maybe less, but there was no reason for pessimism. I had another six weeks of work to do, so no reason to rush home. We spoke almost daily on the phone about how much we were looking forward to hugging each other. I had plans for how we'd finally eat M&Ms off a spoon covered in peanut butter, like we'd always joked about since I was a little kid.

Then it became clear that six months was a slightly high estimate. She was on hospice at home but more-or-less her regular old self. To be on the safe side, I made arrangements to return home a few weeks early, throwing aside my carefully justified plans for April in order to be home for Easter and have some quality time together. Meanwhile, I was scrambling to finish some of my work here (a trail that was inaugurated yesterday, of all days) and assuming she'd hold on.

It turns out melanoma was either unaware or indifferent to the plans we had.

Today I said goodbye to her over the phone. 810 days here, and I missed her by just five.

It was her time to go. She had been semi-unconscious for the past two days and went peacefully today at 1:30 pm, surrounded by family and friends. Our last interaction was her slight moan over the phone as I thanked her, told her it was okay for her to go, told her I loved her and would see her soon.

This was one last lesson that Guatemala had in store for me. And after endless lessons here in humility, flexibility, the futility of perfectionism, it was the most important lesson of all.

The moments we have with others are the most precious thing we have.

It sounds corny, but you need to experience it to understand. The moments we have now. Not tomorrow. Not some indeterminate Future with a capital f. It's comforting to leave things for later, as it allows us to remain indecisive, avoiding making mistakes, be lazy, just a little longer. The problem is we just don't know what the future holds.

After visiting home in October, I had made a list of goals. Run a 5k, learn German, improve my relationships with my dad and grandma. It seemed like I had a long time to work toward those goals. It seemed like grandma would live to 100. And so I somehow never got around to making daily calls or convincing her to get on Skype. When we did talk, it seemed it would take more energy than I had to find much to say that was both credible and genuine. I would let my mind wander and repeat things and leave her to do the talking.

But in the end, today, I had to be present when I said goodbye. There was no putting it off. There would be no chance for re-do in the future.

Grams didn't need any re-dos, because she never forgot that each moment was precious. She never missed an opportunity to hug us, to tell us she loved us, to tell us how raising us had brought new light into her life. She rarely bickered and made a point to slip us an extra cookie and spoil us and chat when we sat and watched TV.

After today, I understand the essence of goodbye a little better; that a real goodbye is an act, like the many Grams gave us, of love and most concentrated presence in the moment. I'll be saying goodbye many times over again to friends and acquaintances in the next few days. And now, I´ll surely be more present for each one. I´ll hug a little harder, be more honest in my gratitude, and spoil everyone just a little bit more.

Thank you, thank you, thank you, Grams.

Here concludes my official log as a volunteer in Guatemala, as I expect I'll be busy in the next three days with packing and goodbye celebrations. Catch you on the other side of the border, where I'm sure many more thoughts will surface about the beautiful, mundane, and absurd of this crazy 27-month ride.

Saturday, March 24, 2012


As I referenced in my first post about work nearly a year ago, for my first months here I really didn't feel like I was doing anything.

My counterpart never took the initiative to direct me or ask me what we should be doing, and rarely invited me to do things. Mam was spoken in our work environment between my counterparts, so only 5% of daily conversation was shared with me. Compounding my sense of disorientation, there was no weekly or monthly planning. We were directionless about my work. I didn't know what I was doing aside from observing, because that was the Peace Corps philosophy (although with good reason). It took me months to realize that if I wasn't going to build a zip-line, my counterpart did not have much vision of what I should be doing either.

I would go and sit in the office all day and try to figure out what was going on. I wanted to prove to my counterpart I was interested in working. I took advantage of any chance to get out in the schools, forests, and communities and went to meetings like a starved little bird eating bread crumbs. I helped my office-mate write and deliver environmental lesson plans with area schools. I learned to grant licenses for tree and leaf litter extraction. I had thousands of subtle conversations about the tourism project with community members, most of which ended with blank stares and a change of topic. I started thinking about what to do for a Master's project and reading papers but hit constant self-motivational dead ends as well as the stark reality that geologists are not welcome in these parts. I wrote elaborate blog posts and journal entries. I chatted on g-mail with my boyfriend.

I had no idea what I was doing, and no one told me. But I figured it out. Looking back, I feel like I didn't take as much personal initiative in those first months as I probably could have, but with reason.

I felt I did not know the community well enough, nor their feelings on our environmental office, let alone tourism. I was hesitant about walking around alone or going to communities on my own, and I think with good reason. I felt my counterpart didn't really respond when I spoke about issues I was having. I didn't feel confident contradicting him directly and he seemed to bristle whenever I asked him for a moment of time when he was busy. The "go get 'em" part of me is kind of ashamed I let him intimidate me, but now I'm glad I took the indirect way in with him. Our interaction was more on his cultural terms and therefore more respectful and productive ultimately.

I was battling my own uncertainty, my own loneliness, my own laziness. My social situation seemed intricately entwined with my work situation: on both fronts I was encountering indifference from the community and from my counterpart and supervisor. I was desperately missing my best friend and the best I could find to fill to that social void was my three-year-old host brother.

In retrospect, I wish I had taken more initiative then to study Mam and perfect my Spanish grammar during some of those long boring days in the office, but my brain often felt at its limits. Before I really learned the pronunciation it was difficult to study without a teacher, and I had felt pressured to be taught by my office-mate, who only had an hour free a day. Only now after so many months of passive absorption of Mam am I really ready to move beyond grammar and basic phrases, and learn at a truly conversational level. But that is now a thought for the future.

The less I "did", the greater my sense of inertia began to grow. Eventually I began to realize that my own attitude and actions were what I could control, and that if I was going to keep going, I needed to train my brain's positive circuitry. I'll admit that some days I still could have brought a better or more proactive attitude, but I showed up. Every day. Even if it was just to talk.

That ultimately made a huge difference, although getting going took a long time. August was probably my lowest month, feeling like I was at a dead stop. My first three months of "observation" and any valid excuse for passivity were up. I had almost no one to work with and was missing my boyfriend terribly because he had visited in July. But from then on, I realized that my own attitude was all I had. I started moving upward, slowly but sure. Accompanying reforestation days, teaching English in a local school, carrying out a local tourism diagnostic, then a class for teachers. And along the way I began to make real friends - on my community's timetable, not mine.

Many things have happened since -the trail project, a class for guides, a young people's group, and many many many meetings. Now I've got inertia but in pure motion. I feel like I am finally, finally, finally in a place to do the work I wanted to do all along, but that I realized only 5% of that potential, and maybe 50% of what I concretely hoped to do. But going home to be with my grandma is the right decision, compared to what I would have accomplished in one extra month.

In 10 days I'll step on the plane and be slammed into a different state of motion. The rest of it I have to let go of.

I'm still in the letting go stage - trying to focus not on what we didn't do, but keep in mind how far I've come, how many subtle dreams we've made reality, how many paths I've helped lay for other dreams -- even if some of the larger ones have fallen by the wayside, or will be put off for others to put into action in the future. It would be but pure ego-ism to not relinquish those dreams into other capable hands.

For the moment, I'm off to continue cleaning and packing! Take care.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Pet Peeves: Forced English Conversation

I wrote this post after a long work day and rudely having to basically tell this young guy I was tired and didn't want to talk anymore. Take it with a grain of salt, but maybe it can shed some insight into those little particular pet peeves and frustrations we develop as volunteers in relation to our local situations!

I have a confession to make.

I find it annoying when total strangers attempt to engage me in full conversations on the street. (Typically in English. I'm not talking about "hi", "bye", "how are you?". I don't mind that. I'm talking ... "I was in x state y years and did this and that and where are you from and when are you going back and where do you live and what did you do today and what's your favorite color? And could your parents write me a letter so I can get a visa?")

Call me totally cold but since when did any person have the right to approach a stranger on the street and try to get at their life history via 20 questions? Especially when you've had a twelve-hour-day and just want to go home and relax for an hour?

In most public street situations I can think of, it would be considered creepy if a total stranger just started telling another stranger about his life and asking them random questions about theirs, with no preamble or "I'd like to talk to you because..." or "I'd like to practice my English sometime". So why is it any different that I'm a gringa and the stranger is a returned immigrant?

-Do they expect me to be excited to speak English? I came here to learn Spanish, but for the record I taught English at least six hours per week for a year and a half and on top of working 40 hours a week. I'm happy to share English with people, greet strangers, translate things for friends/acquaintances when I can, but I've put in my time for the public interest.
-Am I supposed to be impressed by them? Woop-dee you learned another language after living in a different country for five years. Good for you, but not that surprising.
-Yes, I'm from New York (state). No, I'm not from anywhere near the city and sorry, we don't have anything in common that is remotely important.

Young returned immigrants have reached out frequently to me and it's understandable. Generally I think it's because they miss the US and the status they had being there. They know that speaking English is a talent, but I get the sense most don't have an idea of how to put it to practical use... meaning it's an intuitive action to reach out to people from the culture you've left behind to get recognition. Especially now that I'm leaving Guatemala, I can understand that urge.

But it's still creepy. In this case, it's also this weird reflection of a negative power dynamic between men and women, where men have the right to approach women for whatever they want. I know men get it too, but with women, they don't let off as easily, even when you demonstrate you speak Spanish.

And if you're with your tall bearded boyfriend, those young strangers don't say anything. That pisses me off. Am I just some commodity to be passed from one man's custody to the open public domain when he's not around?

This is a lesson to me, though, too. When I get home, I'm going to respect people's right to privacy. Meaning principally, I'm not going to accost every Hispanic-looking guy on the street and ask him in Spanish if he's Guatemalan then refuse to speak English with him, even if he's fluent.

I just feel like it's a respect thing. Do I give up that right simply because of the trauma these young men have faced during their journeys, and their myriad needs for rehabilitation that they're not receiving? I don't think so.

As vehemently as I support immigration reform based on what I've seen here, I just don't have the resources to help them individually, and encouraging their friendship is not ultimately helpful to them nor appealing to me in the context of my status here.

In summary, my philosophy: don't engage strangers in full conversation on the street just because you're eager to practice their language. If you're really that overeager, ask them politely- in the local language- if you could converse a little bit, or pay them for a lesson! And give them the chance to tell you they're freaking busy at the moment.

Am I being harsh?

Saturday, March 17, 2012

The Incredible Lightness of Leaving

I finally bought my plane ticket home. I'll be home a few weeks earlier than I'd originally hoped, because I recently found out a close family member of mine is fighting cancer. That was another lesson from the universe, as if all this restructuring from Peace Corps security weren't enough stress: count your blessings. Always! As a kid, I really didn't always have to, but I've learned it in many ways here. This was just another reminder.

So I'm getting the cat's "visas" in order, scrambling toward the finish line on the ecological trail, making final to-do lists, putting together a list of potential follow-up things my replacement can work on.

I didn't do everything I committed to do before leaving - largely because of the transition in municipal government - but I desperately want to at least acknowledge it, to leave feeling I dotted the i's and crossed the t's and that it will be tougher for folks to say: "Oh that volunteer? She didn't do anything!"

Having the ticket is nice, because it's forcing me to accept that what I've done, I've done, and what I won't do, I won't do. And it's helping me to picture that plane ride home with some excitement: that first bite of pizza at our local pizzeria, the first hug with my grandma, the fragrant fresh smell of western NY in the spring time and wearing a tank-top and flip-flops!

At COS conference in February, our programming officer led us through a visualization of going home. It made me cry, which I tried to hide through squeezed eyes. I just wasn't there yet, miles from it. I felt horrible about the idea of leaving. Without proper goodbyes, without closing out projects, without even having passed anything over to my replacement. (Actually, then, I didn't even know for sure if I would be replaced, because the mayor's council was dragging their feet).

Now I'm ready to think about it, yet as I begin to attack my leaving to-do list, I'm still fighting my own resistance to leaving. I think about it for a minute: oh, I should... (fill in the blank) : sort my recycling, clean up that pile of dirt I've left in that corner all year, back-up my Master's data, wash the clothes I'm giving away...

Then it occurs to me that I'm leaving and as soon as I do anything on that list, I will be one step closer to leaving, just a tiny bit lighter. I don't want to be lighter. As tough as it's been, I've anchored myself here over the past two years. I wanted to stay anchored. I don't want to float away after so much time invested in the community.

What would I do with a completely clean house, packed bags, and nothing to do on my to-do list? Just being is terrifying.

Last night, on the whim of an invitation, I sat eating dinner with one of my best friends and her mom, campesino cheese with boiled salt potatoes and tamalitos. It was delicious for some reason, maybe because I didn't need to cook it. We chatted and talked about the town's history and development and what makes it special, a common topic in her house. Afterward she walked me home and we watched the Friday lenten procession: women in teams carrying floats with statues of the Virgin Mary and Jesus decked out in resplendent velvet robes, flanked by plastic flowers, illuminated by high-power CFC lightbulbs installed in the corner of each float, little kids trailing behind the floats pushing gas generators on wheels.

I thought about the creativity and unique spirit of the people in my site, and how I wished I could share it with everyone back home so that they would understand that the town is in no significant way "third world" to the US. And I thought about how I would miss it all, even the potatoes and tamalitos.

My sense of wonder is mourning: how did I became so comfortable here? Why were the confidence and efficacy I have now so elusive to me in my first year? Why do I have to leave now, and what have I even really done here?

There will be time to ponder these issues, and I intend to take advantage of my time at home this next month to write about a lot of these things.

In the meanwhile, two weeks is a short amount of time, but I'm determined to try to be here in every moment I can. Getting lighter and lighter.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

What I'll Miss About Guatemala

I've had this post in my head for a long time now. Since my departure from Guatemala is now imminent (t-minus 1 month!), I'd better start wrapping myself around the fact that I'm leaving.

I'm feeling pretty mixed up about it. I know I'll be back to Guatemala in the future, but things will never be quite the same for me in my community as they are now. I long ago got over the phase of desperately wanting the experience to be over and now feel this wonderful but tenuous belonging. I don't want to give that up, but I also realize that it's time given my personal circumstances.

I spend a lot of time now thinking about what a great place I'm in now to do all the work I wanted to do a year ago, and fantasizing about coming back and living here and doing what I really want, outside of the constraints of my Peace Corps counterpart agency.

And maybe because my main project still isn't finished, I am currently exerting way less mental energy than I expected in celebrating that I will soon be back with the loved ones I've missed so much, having left behind the stress of the last two years. I'm in a weird place in between counting down the days and wishing each day would just slow down a bit.

In that spirit, I've been thinking about all the things I need to enjoy now, and to keep the balance, the things that I have to look forward to...

Things I'll Miss...

(1) Tortillas, beans, rice, and eggs with chopped onion/tomato at Dona Mary's diner. Seriously the best plate ever!

(2) The people. I think this is true wherever you go, but my better friendships and even casual acquaintanceships here were so hard-won that it's hard to think about letting them fade out. It's a little bit beyond describing.

(3) Living on $250/month with a practically unlimited supply of fresh vegetables, house to myself, the occasional meal out, and the ability to take great vacations for little. And being able to buy almost everything I need from a small seller in the market or a mom-and-pop shop!

(4) Being admired by kids and having automatic celebrity. Kids are awesome.

(5) Long-term structure... because even when Peace Corps was tough, I always knew where I would be and what I would be doing until March 2012. Now I'm going back to the States with a Masters' degree to finish, but after that life is a big "?"!

(6) Having a job working with protected areas and environmental ed. As tough as it was sometimes to work within a different culture, I loved my job and the freedom to imagine different projects to address varying needs.

(7) Guatemalan street snacks, and the accompanying immunity I've built up.

(8) The connection people here have to the land and the lack of consumeristic culture. A silly example: Like most people in my town, I didn't have a refrigerator while I was here, and I realized I won't even ever need one, at least not of the typical size we have in the US. In a different environment I doubt I would have ever realized that.

(9) The fairly temperate climate, year-round. (Makes wardrobe easy.)

(10) The slower pace of life and less demanding expectations. (Not in the sense of expectations for me, but it's just nice to be around people who are not sweating the small stuff too much.)

Things I'm Looking Forward to...!

(1) The ridiculous variety of foods, flavors, and cuisines we have daily access to in the US! Whole grains!

(2) Being with family and friends at home.

(3) Summer = farmer's markets? Let's hope.

(4) Not being constantly asked to teach English, share information about where I'm from or what I'm doing, tell people about life in the United States, etc. No longer being blatantly stared out whenever I leave my house.

(5) Being able to control more of the structure of my daily life, and also feeling less pressure to cram my entire day full of activities, social time, or work. As PCVs we're encouraged to be "on" 24-7 ... there's always something to do, even if it's just brushing up on language ... that pressure gets tiring. And I can't honestly say I learned to balance my relaxing and work time, unfortunately.

(6) Applying what I've learned here to environmental ed in the US. So many valuable lessons... And being able to hike and backpack freely again without fear of being ambushed off the beaten bath.

(7) Cleanliness: drinking water out of the tap!! ... a washing machine!!! ... hot running water! People here value cleanliness a lot, but the place is really dusty, and there's very little automation or hot water. So, keeping stuff clean here as most housewives do implies being way less lazy than I am. I'm excited to be in a place where staying clean is easier.

(8) Living in an apartment with windows and natural light! I've had enough of this cement-block cave ;-)

(9) SNOW and SEASONS aside from : rain / no rain.

(10) Meetings starting more or less at a given hour, with the people in attendance who claimed they'd attend. People who say out loud in words what they really think rather than in a complex mixture of body language and telepathy.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Quick Take: Rabbits

A fellow volunteer was closing her service (COSing) and putting her adorable rabbit up for adoption to other PCVs. I was newly arrived in site and a pet sounded great – I just wasn´t sure how my host family would react. Obviously I would need their permission to keep her in the house. I asked my host mom. Her response: ¨Well, I´ll ask my husband. But we don´t eat rabbit.¨ That settled the matter pretty quickly!

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Life as a "Returned" Peace Corps Volunteer

So it happened. Today I closed my service as Peace Corps Volunteer.

One year and 11 months ago, it was hard to believe that the day would come.

The funny thing about it is that I'm still here. In my site. Eating beans and tortillas and getting annoyed every time someone asks me to get them a visa. Thank goodness for beans and tortillas and people who ask for visas.

They make it totally worth it. And I'm being replaced by another volunteer, a biologist, refugee from a now off-limits department, so I'm not out in the middle of somewhere that Peace Corps considers really insecure. We'll have a month to work together.

Last week, we all turned in our piles of paperwork and had a late COS conference with my training group. It was nice to celebrate and eat good food and see everyone. It all gave closure, but it's still an odd feeling. What's really changed between yesterday and Monday? I guess a number somewhere on a computer screen in Washington, DC.

Less than imagining I'd never finish Peace Corps, I never would have imagined that I would not want to go when given the free pass to finish a month early. Yet something cool about Peace Corps is that it takes time to make friends in community and get ideas rolling, but when you do, it's great. You get infected with the idea of making things happen. I would guess there are very few volunteers out there who stop involving themselves in their communities - wherever they are - in some way after they finish Peace Corps.

I like to look at it like I'm just getting a head-start on the life-long volunteering thing, by seamlessly passing from my Peace Corps service to a true volunteer experience... I just happen to be finishing projects started under Peace Corps.

Among other things, what we started and will be finishing in this case are some signs. True story. I'll tell you all about it on March 30, after we inaugurate the project!

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Valentine's Day Hugs

Hugs are awesome.

Sadly, I sometimes go weeks without them here.

Adults in my town tend to reserve hugs for a few special occasions: birthdays, Christmas Eve, New Year's Eve, and Valentine's Day. When I get a real hug from an adult, it's amazing. But these are rare occasions.

It's the kids that keep me breathing. I'm always amazed by them. How creative and energetic they are. How willing they are to let go of differences and care about a slightly awkward pants-wearing giantess with glasses, light hair, light skin, and light eyes. Their minds are so open.

I'm thinking of this because on Tuesday we celebrated "Day of Affection and Friendship," the Guatemalan version of Valentine's Day. To the extent that it's celebrated in my town, people might eat a special snack or cake, exchange hand-made cards, or simply exchange hugs. It's a low-key affair.

I happened to fall into a celebration at a school, which required me to teach an impromptu and very short-lived lesson on Valentine's Day English vocabulary, eat double snack, and accept endless hugs from a bunch of adorable kids. Life is hard ;-)

I was mobbed by at least four different groups of students looking for hugs. And two students I had never met before made me a Valentine's Day card, which totally made my day. I doubt I will ever achieve this level of rock-star fame again.

There is a LOT going on right now, as I approach a week left until my official close-of-service date. So much more to do before that date, and before I leave for real later on.

Better to get as many hugs as possible while I still can!

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Found in Translation

The local park guards are the sincerest guys I know here. After awhile I came to realize that we have a mutual appreciation, and a similar viewpoint about the work we're all doing. People like them have kept me going when things seem pointless.

A few months ago I got a formal request from them, typed, printed, and addressed in an envelope, which was hand delivered to me. These are not guys who are exactly computer saavy or into writing things down, so it was pretty touching that they took me so seriously, even if it was a request for money (basically).

I'll share it just to give you a taste of the culture here, and the formality used in written communications:

[my name here]
Peace Corps Volunteer
Municipality of [my site here]

By means of the present receive the warmest greetings on the part of the park guards of [my site here], at the same time we wish to desire you every type of success in your daily labor.

WE THE BELOW SIGNED all majority of age, Guatemalans, holding the title of Municipal Park Guards of the municipality of [my site here] of the department of [my department here], BEFORE YOU RESPECTFULLY direct ourselves in order to expound the following: FIRST: That it is of your knowledge that our work is practiced in the communal forest of the municipality in order to maintain and watch over the forests of our municipality, for which it is necessary to carry mountain backpacks in order to carry medicines for first aid and others. SECOND: For the reasons written above, and with all the respect that you deserve as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the municipality of [my site, department], at the same time we solicit to your good person and willingness that you would help us by donating three mountain backpacks.

Without anything else to add for you, we thank your fine attention and understanding.


[names and signatures of 3 park guards] me it sounds pretty funny translated nearly literally into English! I've realized that my spoken Spanish is also quite a bit more formal than I speak in English, basically it´s natural to be a sponge and repeat whatever style of language you hear.

We could speculate on why written language, and even public spoken discourse, are so formal here ... vestiges of Spanish colonialism? acquisition of Spanish as a second language used mostly to speak with strangers and write formal documents? influence on Spanish from the local Mayan language? It's so interesting to reflect on the way that culture influences language -- and hey, vice versa, right?!

(And if you're wondering, I found a local outfitter: one backpack will cost $65, approximately 1/4 of their monthly salaries. I´m trying to convince them to solicit the bags from the new mayor, because I think it´s important people rely on their local systems when possible - and our town hall is in pretty good shape. But if they decide not to, it´s going to be hard to say no to such an earnest request!)

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Rekindling a Sense of Wonder

Today we went to the woods with a group of young people interested in tourism, to evaluate a new hike, and see what we would see.

And we were surprised.

None of the young folks had ever seen snow in the forest before, although they live just kilometers away. Up until today, some never thought it was possible.

They were pretty amazed.

Actually I was pretty amazed, too. It was like hail, in perfectly round balls, but covered the ground, emanating cold like a late summer snow-pack in the Cascades. But it wasn't in crunchy sheets begging you to post-hole - more like slippery sand.

So uphill wasn't bad. We slipped and slid up to the summit, where another wow-moment awaited us.

It's possible that more pictures of snow and ice have never been taken in such a short amount of time.

So many times we try to encapsulate in words or pictures or textbooks what simply can't be communicated effectively in such a way. Today was a reminder that we are often impacted most when the world teaches us through our own sense of wonder; even more so when that sense of wonder is shared.

Thanks to the woods for a great day. I'd like to spend every Sunday of my life in the same way.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Pre-Service Training: The Good Life

I’ve realized it’s time to start reflecting on my time here. I’ll break it down by natural phases in the “PCV cycle”. Today’s reflection will be training...

January to March, 2010

I arrived in Guatemala just over two years ago, with a backpack full of irrelevant clothing items and a flamboyant mixture of excitement and tension about what the future would hold. As the friend of many Guatemala RPCVs, and girlfriend of a Guatemalan I'd met at graduate school, I carried no small load of expectations.

My old room: is this heaven or is it hell...?

I remember our training director picking us up at the airport. We rode to the training center on a chartered school bus and I sat next to a guy with whom I would soon share a training community, chatting about my plans to build a solar shower and keep a garden wherever I lived. (Riiiiight.)

I like structure. I have to admit that I enjoyed training, from day one, perhaps a little more than the average trainee. My host mother was a good cook. She sort of understood the concept of vegetarianism. Each week we had four days of Spanish, one day at the training center, and a weekly tech training session. I loved Spanish lessons. I hadn’t brought a computer, so each night meant studying, reading for pleasure, and chatting with my boyfriend long-distance. It felt like summer camp.

There was always the looming doubt: would I stay? Could I deal two years without my boyfriend? I had some retrospectively pretty funny issues with cultural and linguistic misunderstandings. Yet... I was pretty content on a daily basis. The most uncomfortable parts of training for me were adapting my intestinal flora, living with a flea-infestation in my bed, and trying to connect with my semi-apathetic host family.

(They had had between fifteen and twenty volunteers before me - I guess you lose track around ten? - and there were no small children in the house, as I had hoped, so it was pretty much like living in a boarding house at first.)

I loved many parts of training, though. I loved Spanish lessons. I loved Field-Based Training. I loved giving my first hands-on lesson in the community. My boyfriend, coincidentally, was doing fieldwork in Guatemala, and I got to see him every two weeks. I loved that. I less than loved the absurdity of our training project with the local mayor, but we could all deal. And my host parents and I reached some sort of mutual admiration -- after two baby showers and countless Sunday mornings of hellfire and brimstone in church together.

Then came the day of our site assignment. I got a medium-sized town of 6,000 whose name I couldn’t pronounce. I had wanted a tiny community in the middle of nowhere. It was my fault, as I hadn’t spoken up to my program director. I was bummed, for the first time in country. After my site visit, though, I kind of got over it - the first hint of the crazy rollercoaster that would be Peace Corps service.

My town seemed to have a lot of potential. Lots of forest, female office-mates, a non-creepy counterpart. It didn’t hurt my optimism that I was about to have the first long weekend with my boyfriend in three months. It was an exciting time! But how would things be when the excitement passed...?

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Work is sacred

On "Counterpart Day", the last day of training, our counterparts came to take us to our sites.

There was a section of the agenda where we were to discuss with them our different cultural perspectives on universal concepts, such as family, work, gender, love. The municipal council member accompanying my counterpart spoke first: "Work is sacred," he said. "Everyone has the right to work."

Just a week ago, all the municipal employees met with the new mayor. Unlike most new mayors, he has no plan to fire anyone in order to make space for family members. The key part of his speech was that he expected quality work from us, but if we did not work hard, our jobs would be at risk. "Your work is sacred," he said. "Protect it."

Today I went to call on a friend's mother so I could borrow a key. I felt rude because I was rushed and didn't have time to chat. "I understand," she said. "It's your work. My daughter, too. That's a good thing. Work is sacred."

It seems like I've heard that a lot lately, and it's got me thinking hard to make sense of it. I suppose work would be considered sacred in a culture where the amount of work you do, the area of land you cultivate, the products you sell at market, directly relate to the amount of food on the table at night.

Work means a healthy family. It means the ability to live easier. It's survival. It's sacred because it's not necessarily something that everyone has, regardless of their merit. A plague or drought or crippling illness can affect anyone's work indiscriminately. Work, in a sense, is God-given.

I've always thought of work from the perspective of the industrial-age "Protestant work ethic," though. People who are smarter and work harder get better jobs. Some jobs are better than others. (Quick test here: Janitor or lawyer? Which does mainstream US and even Guatemalan culture suppose is better?) Work is not sacred, because it is something man controls. It is earned by man, not God-given.

But more and more, I think I can see the Mayan point of view. The recent economic crises have served as a reminder that we live in a complicated economic system, one that we hardly control. The crises have shown lots of people that there is no shame in working simply to put food on the table.

Point being: Work is not something everyone has. We shouldn't take our work for granted, or complain about it, whatever it is. We have to protect it - do it as well and with as much pride as we can, while knowing it can be taken just as it was given.

If we don't revere our work, we've lost sight of its basic meaning.

One day I was chatting with some friends over lunch. We were talking about US culture, how we are often so rushed working that we eat lunch standing or at our desks. One friend commented, "You know, that's so funny. It's impossible to get people from the communities [small villages in my municipality] to even come to an event during lunchtime."

Another agreed. "It's because they haven't lost perspective," he said. "We work to eat, not the other way around."

Your work is sacred. Protect it.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Quick update

Quick update to the "big changes" post: Last week we met at an All-Volunteer Conference, and if you'd like to know more, I would recommend a post from a fellow volunteer, EJR's "The most difficult decision". The summary is that post is reducing in size and scope to make security easier to handle. This is requiring some volunteers to make tough choices. Even so, post itself is not shutting down, despite the Guatemalan press's confusion on the matter.

I've made my choices (stay in community until late April regardless), and am moving on now to processing my own imminent departure from Peace Corps. Believe it or not I may be replaced at this point by a displaced volunteer, though, which has been a big relief.

It's still a scramble to finish up work, and I can't even believe how productive the days and weeks are now compared to a year ago.
Life is filled with interpretive text, pulling strings and dropping names, annual operating plans, meetings, guide trainings ... And oh right, I have a Master's project to finish...!

A Day in the Life: Guatemalan-German Christmas

So this post might be a little late at this point -- I was conceiving of it about a month ago as a response to a call for posts on a blog I'm mildly addicted to (That Wife). If you're not in a Christmas mood you can always bookmark it and come back in 11 months, though :-)

As background, I have a long-distance boyfriend/partner/marido/hombre/esposo/ch'mil whom I've not really mentioned on this blog. It's a confusing situation, but for the moment, it suffices to say that we spent Christmas Eve/Christmas Day with his family here in Guatemala and it was really great.

It was my first Christmas away from home, but it wasn't sad as I expected, just new. Here are some new traditions we got to try:

Christmas Eve Day, 9 am:
Woken up by the cat-scarf. This is a tradition we plan to replicate in the future.

10:30 am: We give the cat-scarf good-bye snuggles, and go off to begin the gluttony with a delicious brunch at a restaurant in a nearby city. Then we go in search of an elusive flower for boyfriend's mom's Christmas present. On the way, we walk through the market, which is an amazing and complete zoo.

1 pm: Lunch with boyfriend's family. Afterward we wash dishes, nap, and work on the computer, while I wrap a few presents.

4 pm: Family friends come to visit, and leave, and others come. The gluttony continues with tea, coffee, and rounds of spiced chocolate treats from Germany, plus US-style Christmas cookies we bought from a local bakery. At this point I've consumed in one day what in site I usually eat in three days.

7 pm: Mother-in-law and I go off to collect our Christmas tamales from her special supplier. It's freezing outside but I'm warmed by the boiling-hot tamales in my arms, and we admire the Christmas lights in the neighborhoods on our way home. Feels like Christmas.

The tamales come in two kinds: sweet with chocolate, and savory with raisins and red sweet pepper. Around 8 pm we eat dinner. Here are the tamales, or "paches" as they're called here:

11:00 pm: We light the Advent wreath and Christmas tree (German traditions), then sing some carols. Those Germans really know how to serenade their Christmas greenery. I mumble along and pretend to know the words. (I'm pro at this point with all that Mam practice.)

Safety first!:

After singing, we put all the presents on the table, one or two for each person. My boyfriend and I got basically two presents: a nice photo book of Guatemala from his family, and warm winter hats from my mom. (You know you're finally grown up when you get excited about...)

This was really different for me, but sort of liberating. At home everybody gets a LOT of presents, they go under the tree from Santa, and we open them on Christmas morning with stockings. At home we've "down-sized" since I was kid, but even last year seems quite extravagant comparatively.

I have a lot of dear childhood memories, but I admit I liked the one-present idea this year. It's fun to open something, but kind of seems totally besides the point. People in my site don't even really give Christmas presents, although kids might get some fruit or candy.

There is a bigger present coming, after all...

Waiting for baby Jesus to arrive (the fruit/moss/nativity under the tree is a Guate tradition).

Christmas morning, 12:00 am
The streets and skies erupt in pure pyrotechnic joy. For miles in every direction you can hear firework shells echoing in homage to baby Jesus, or perhaps simply in homage to the fact that Guatemalans just really love fireworks. After about five minutes the fireworks stop, and we give each other "the Christmas hug" (also a Guatemalan tradition). Then it's off to bed.

10 am
We roll out of bed, eat breakfast, and spend the morning relaxing. I'm content, but I do think of my mom's sticky buns!

12 pm:
Another round of fireworks. It's amazing how much Guatemalans love pyrotechnics.

1 pm:
We go out to eat for lunch, the big meal of the day. This was maybe the most different tradition for me-- I have never in my life gone out to eat on Christmas day, let alone for pizza! At home we usually eat a sandwich or cereal on our own for lunch on Christmas, then have appetizers and a big prepared dinner with the extended family in the evening.

3 pm:
Unlike at home in the US, Christmas is sort of winding down at this point, and we have another relaxed afternoon: we go for a walk, take a nap, fit in a Skype session with my fam and grandparents at home, and watch Andrea Bocelli's "My Christmas" video through dinner. (Not going to lie that I didn't love every second of it.)

7 pm:
Tamales, round two. We also eat a special German Christmas bread called stollen. (16% butter. yee-haw!)

My brother-in-law's baby Guatemalan fir made its debut this year. Public service announcement: The Guatemalan fir is an endangered species endemic to the Western Highlands, endangered precisely for its excellent Christmas-tree qualities, and its unfortunate propensity to drop seed only once every two years. (And in December, right around the time people would tend to cut them down - tough love, evolution, tough love.)

8 pm:
We capped off the day with an animated Christmas movie, then headed off to bed.

I really enjoyed Christmas this year, and not to sound corny, but I experienced first hand that it really is being with family and being part of their traditions that makes Christmas great, whether they're your traditions or not ! Less is where you are, what you eat, or what you receive...