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!