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...

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Big changes for PC/Guate

Hi all-

Just wanted to drop a line about the situation here. None of what I'm about to say is secret - the news is in a PDF published today by Peace Corps on their website [link here].

On Tuesday we were called in and told that our training group would be closing our service (COSing) early - like, "you have at most three more weeks to finish your work" early. Everybody's situation is different; some were satisfied with their work and thinking of COSing early anyway. For others this was quite the bombshell, on top of having been told just a month earlier we would not be replaced. We know that our work is not in a "sustainable" place right now. We know that three weeks will go by in a heartbeat.

I was still considering my options the day after when we received an e-mail that our early COS is actually part of a bigger plan of reduction and consolidation that will affect many more volunteers here in Guatemala.

I have many general thoughts on the situation, but I will save them for a more appropriate moment. At this point in time, I just wanted to share my personal experience as a volunteer almost 22 months into her service.

So here it is: I'm unprepared to leave, folks. What makes me most sad is the idea of saying goodbye early - but saying goodbye I could do. What will actually prevent me from leaving early are my pending work commitments.

Like many, I am one of those volunteers who get chugging late, but at the end are enjoying a lot of momentum. It might not be ideal, but it's the way things work sometimes when you are the first generation volunteer, live in a fairly closed community, have an uncommitted counterpart, and/or have no funding. For volunteers like us, the last three months are worth six.

My counterparts and I have an interpretative trail to finish, signs to hang, two months of water data to collect (plus fieldwork), a park logo to finalize, a group of young people to organize, a first round of promotion to do, a proposal to write for park infrastructure improvements, an annual operating plan to help shape, a plan to present to the new mayor. The majority of that will happen before our new COS date, but not all of it can (especially my Masters' work).

I feel confident that things will work out, in one way or another. We will find out more soon. But for the meantime, I'm just trying to process what all this will mean for us.

Sometimes this is what life seems to think of making plans. (Splattered blackberry juice on painstakingly crafted to-do list. April 2010)

Monday, January 16, 2012

Survived the holidays, and some bad news

Aside from my post on Christmas this week, I somehow went an entire month without posting, although that wasn't the intention. In quick review, it was a busy but fun month:


(1) I resigned to twiddling my thumbs somewhat during December, with a feria patronal and municipal holiday the entire second week, and 3/4ths of my relevant counterparts on vacation all month;

(2) I dedicated most of my mental energy to finishing out the guide class I started in September (we had classes on plant identification, security/first aid, how to give a good tour, and a field trip to a nearby archeological park);

(3) the entire week before Christmas myself and all the other municipal employees put off anything else that might have been important and scrambled to pull together the inauguration of the mayor's enormous pet project, and

(4) my boyfriend came to visit for two awesome weeks over Christmas and New Year's. Truth be told, we didn´t have to survive the holidays... they were great. What merited some difficulty was processing the news we´ve just received...


The news: On Dec. 16th we were informed by Peace Corps that my group will not be replaced. The same decision was made for El Salvador, and Honduras volunteers will actually be evacuated while PC/Washington evaluates operations there. I may write more about this later, but the bottom line is that the decision was, as far as we know, not precipitated by any specific events in Guatemala that might threaten volunteers. From my perspective there's no reason for folks at home to be more concerned than usual about us here in Guate, as it's more a precautionary measure related to the regional security situation.

I kept to myself about it over Christmas, but I started sharing the news with my counterparts last week, and they are actually pretty disappointed. It brings home what a bummer this really is, and I've started to get a little more anxious about doing them justice and leaving some sort of sustainable momentum. One step at a time is all, though.

On the positive side I've decided to take on two personal projects to help channel that energy: one is the Couch 2 5K program, so that I come back to the States in good shape and ready for summer adventures; the other is post on the blog a lot more frequently, perhaps even every other day or so.

We'll see what these last three months bring! (Wow. Last three months. Thinking that out loud makes me feel like an Edvard Munch painting.)

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Christmas in Guatemala

This year was my first Christmas away from home and family. It was definitely different, but fun to be in a place that celebrates Christmas with its own mix of traditions. Although my religious perspective is very open, being away from home this year I realized how important the holiday is to me.

The venerable 4th street, Zone 3 Christmas tree, made of green crepe paper over a metal frame, complete with lights and music box which plays MIDI Christmas carols only two octaves below the audible limits of human hearing. It's enough to make me want to break out in a rousing edition of "O, Tannenbaum"

Something interesting about Christmas here is the mixture of traditional and new. Due to the influence of returned immigrants – and to some extent blatant commercialization in a nearby city some secular Christmas ideas from the US are making their way more into celebrations in my town (though always with a Guatemalan spin). Hello public Christmas trees, lights, and Santa.

According to Wal-mart in the closest city the Christmas season started a few days before Halloween, which was kind of strange. Here in my town it started at the beginning of December (as it properly should, haha), with a care package from my mom. That same night my street´s "Christmas tree committee" had its annual Christmas tree lighting and marching band contest. After that, Christmas decorations and the dreaded music boxes of MIDI-Christmas-carol doom started going up all over the place.

Annual Christmas tree lighting: one night I found the Macy's Day Parade outside my front door.
It was a noisy and cheerful month, if a little frustrating work-wise, since almost all my counterparts were on vacation physically and mentally. Even so it was a very happy time: I had my boyfriend´s visit to look forward to; we enjoyed dry, sunny weather; and I came home every night to find my street filled with ¨Christmas cheer¨: lights, excited children, and neighborhood stands brimming with fireworks and Christmas treats. We’re at around 8000 ft here, so it was almost freezing cold at night, which made it feel very Christmas-like as well, even without snow.

In mid-December the posadas started taking to the streets every night, commemorating Mary and Joseph´s search for shelter with candle-light processions and cheerful and off-key carol-singing.

Mom's care-package: Being away from home, I embraced the kitsch this year with enthusiasm I probably haven't had since I was about 12. Thanks, Mom!

I eventually even adapted to the incessant noise of fire-crackers and the music box on the street outside my house playing ¨Jingle Bells¨ on repeat for three hours every night. (Though I still can´t relate to the Guatemalan super-power of noise tolerance.)

The afternoon before Christmas break the municipality gave each employee a Christmas basket filled with basic staples and lots of typical Christmas treats like marshmallows, canned peaches, imported grapes, and Washington apples. From what I´ve heard this is pretty standard practice throughout Guatemala.

(Getting apples in the Christmas basket made me think of Little House on the Prairie— as an 8-year-old reading how Laura Ingalls got all excited about an orange in her stocking, I could only contemplate with horror the idea that a piece of fruit could possibly be a Christmas present. Now I get it a little bit more.)

While it's a fun time of year to eat marshmellows and burn firecrackers, there's also nativity scenes and lots of talk in the air about "el niƱo Jesus." Religious Catholics in my town go to church on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, while Evangelicals seem to play down the situation unless Christmas falls on their normal day of worship. In rural areas especially, but throughout the country, people prepare traditional paches or special sweet tamales, which they often eat at midnight, and many drink a spiked fruit drink called ponche.

Midnight on Christmas Eve is typically the main show. Those with money to blow go nuts with the fire-crackers and fireworks, lit off at precisely midnight (with a reprise at noon on Christmas Day). In my town at least, families typically don´t have the custom of giving presents - fireworks are cooler I guess -, but everyone exchanges the traditional ¨Christmas hug¨ between family and close friends. It's a nice idea, and I wonder how and when it got started.

Christmas tamale!

That's about all I've got on the general celebration here in Guate. I didn’t spend actual Christmas day in town, but with my boyfriend´s family in a nearby city – so I´ll share more on that later!