Thank you for including us in your contacts. What type of assignment/work are you involved in? How are your Spanish language skills? I imagine that you will learn a lot of the colloquial
words and expressions. It looks as if you are near the coast. How's the swimming? What do you do for fun and recreation? What are your living arrangements like?
God be with you each step of the way. Vaya con Dios. Lovingly, Lynndee and Phil Caput
In December 2011 I finished serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in a small, rural town in the north-western highlands of Guatemala. Not ready to leave here yet, I've moved to Antigua (about an hour outside of Guatemala City) and am trying to figure out the details of what life will look like now. I'll try to keep you filled in, as I figure them out myself!
Pictures -- (Left to Right): Me and Fredy enjoying the view above Antigua from 'El Cerro de Cruz' * Florecita and her proud owner * Gloria going for a swim
Growing up in the United States has ingrained within me certain expectations for what life “should” look like. Call it the American Dream, or my personal version of what “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” looks like. Really, it doesn’t matter what you call it, because currently my expectations don’t seem to be matching up with reality.
Although I may have never written it out as a to-do list or even developed it as a concrete thought past my subconscious, the order of events that was supposed to happen goes like this:
1. Fall in love
2. Have the facebook-album-perfect-proposal, with a not too big, not too small ring
3. Be walked down the aisle in a gorgeous white dress, with everyone I love surrounding
4. Live happily ever after
Nowhere on the list are government forms, appointments and interviews. Nor is when my future husband would meet my family, because of course he would already know them, so it isn’t worth listing. I didn’t expect to have to figure out where to get money to pay for lawyers to prove our relationship is real, instead of reservation fees for the wedding venue. But like I said, expectations are not always reality.
Monday was Fredy’s visa interview at the U.S. embassy in Guatemala City. We waited in various lines for over three hours, were shuffled from room to room and finally made it up to the front of the line. The interviews take place at what resembles a bank teller window, with thick glass and a small slot to pass documents through; no privacy is provided from the conversations going on with other interviewees or those waiting in line. Fredy and I stepped up to the window together; I stood slightly behind him until after his application forms were passed through and the embassy employee turned to me and asked who I was. The first questions were directed towards Fredy, in Spanish: Why are you applying for a visa? How long do you plan on visiting? When and how did you two meet? Did you bring any pictures of your relationship? How much money do you make? Do you own any land? Then the interviewer excused himself. Moments later he returned and began asking me questions, also in Spanish: How long have you lived in Guatemala? Do you have a job? How much money do you make? You want to live here and not in the States? (More of an accusatory statement than a question.) Then he excused himself again, and didn’t come back for what seemed like forever, but was probably only a couple of minutes. When he returned he spoke only to me, in English. He explained that it is assumed anyone applying for a non-immigrant visa’s true goal is to stay in the U.S. permanently, not just for a visit. The objective of the interview is to prove that the applicant has sufficient reason to come back to their own country. He said what we had proven is that I am Fredy’s strongest tie here, and that I don’t have any real ties nor reason to come back, so the logical conclusion is that once we went to the States together, me having my family and support network and him having me, we would have no reason to come back to Guatemala.
The documentation we had prepared was geared towards proving that our relationship is real, that he has enough money to pay for his own trip and that he would be coming back to his family and the job he has had for four years. I told Fredy that the embassy employees are more like lie detectors than anything else; if they sense anything isn’t matching up it’s reason to deny your visa. I told him to be 100% honest and to be himself and that everything would be fine. My expectation was that if we told the truth, we would get the visa. The reality is, they still thought we were lying.
I turned my back and walked away from the window. As we wove through the crowded rooms where we had just spent the past few hours waiting in line, down a wide cement staircase, through a turn-style gate, through another crowd waiting in line outside the building and then down half a block towards the parking garage, holding my breath and biting my tongue was all I could do to not fall to pieces. And then I did, and Fredy was there to catch me.
Full of emotion but empty handed. Sad. Disappointed. Frustrated. Angry. Disillusioned.
What makes all of this so disheartening is I realize that it is only the beginning, with no certain answer of when the end will be in sight. However, going through this has made me more confident that Fredy is the one I want by my side. When we were in the car driving out of the capital after the interview, Fredy said to me, “We can’t be sad about this. We were praying that God’s will would be done in this situation, and if this is it, we need to accept it. We can’t lose faith. We need to trust that everything will work out.” So as I try to get over the disappointment and stop being mad long enough to look for the next steps we need to take, I am trying to do just that: to keep the faith and trust. It turns out the details that would have made the list before may not be as important, that even though expectations are hard to let go of, they aren’t what matters.
Fredy’s other pearl of wisdom is that the interview was kind of like a soccer game: we may have lost the match, but there is still the championship. It may be a struggle, but we will get there. And if we arrive there together, all of this will be worth it.
Although I am still living in Guatemala, Antigua seems as if it could be a whole world away from San Martin. I traded pothole filled, bumpy roads for cobblestone (and even bumpier) streets. In the early mornings, there are more people walking out of town to catch a bus to their jobs in the capital, than women effortlessly balancing plastic tubs of corn on their heads, as they make their way to the closest grinding machine. The distinction between income levels is well defined but muddled together, with beggars leaning up against the walls that hide mansions with Spanish style courtyards. The sing song tone of ‘Bueenoos Diiiias’ that is impossible to say without a smile, is no longer heard in passing but instead replaced with a polite but short ‘Buen Dia’. And with the busloads of tourists that come in waves, I am certainly no longer one of the few, or only, gringas.
Though it may be a world away, in the last few months I have managed to settle in all the same. I am getting to know the neighbors better through short conversations in the alleyway, and the occasional exchanging of food. I realized I had reached a new level with them, when over the weekend as we were both outside hanging up laundry to dry, the mom said to me, “I thought you were sick.” When I asked her why, she said she noticed I had lights on late at night, and since she knew I was by myself, she began to worry. After explaining this, she said “If you were sick, you know we are right here, right?” I promised her if I ever really did need help, I would turn on all my lights and yell loudly. If this were to happen in the States I would think it were creepy that my neighbors watched the patterns of my light usage, but here it is a sure sign I am gaining trust, that someone would care enough to pay attention.
Two recent additions to my life are also a good indication to me that I am settling into life here, not just passing through. One is my mode of transportation, Florecita, a bright blue, Yamaha, semi-automatic motorcycle. And the other, or shall I say others, are Gloria and Justin Beaver.
As mentioned in my last post, the “commute” to work, although beautiful, was starting to wear on me. Getting used to driving a motorcycle was challenging at first, but now that I am feeling more comfortable, it is a huge help. It has given me back two more hours of my day, so I am able to work more during the week and have Saturdays off. (It is the norm here to work half days on Saturday.) I have even tricked myself into fitting a short run into my schedule, first thing when I wake-up before I am able to realize what I am doing out of bed.
My other recent addition to my life was a much more spur of the moment decision than buying the motorcycle. Fredy and I went to the market together on Saturday a few weeks ago. As we were weaving our way through the vendors’ stalls and other shoppers, I saw from the corner of my eye a plastic bucket, filled with turtles stacked up on one another. Seeing the heaps of dead, whole fish that the vendor was also offering, I had a strong feeling I knew what one would purchase these particular turtles for, but hoping I was wrong, I asked Fredy. I was right. Turtle Soup. We kept walking, but didn’t make it very far before Fredy wedged his way out of the flow of traffic, letting me catch up to him, and asked me if I wanted a turtle. “No, why would I want a turtle?” and just as he turned around to continue walking, “Buuut, are they really going to make them into turtle soup?” And back we went. After spending a few minutes talking with the woman, and Q40 ($5) we walked away with two river turtles, a boy and a girl, and headed off to find a turtle sized swimming pool for them.
Not wanting to save them from their fate of being soup, only to have them trapped in a cage, we decided to set up the pool in the corner of the yard and let them wander freely. An hour later the boy turtle was nowhere to be found. The girl is fairly good at hiding also, but comes out to wander around every few days. Not having much contact with them to be able to settle on good names, I decided to ask for help from my favorite 4 year-old niece in naming them. She quickly offered Gloria for the girl, and hesitated only slightly with Justin Beaver. (Yes, Beaver, not Bieber.) I can only hope Justin is enjoying life in the garden and not trapped somewhere without food. Oh well, better than being boiled alive, right?
While I miss many things about San Martin, and look forward to one day being back in the States, for now I am finding ways to make life here not only work, but be happy. It’s a good feeling.
After 3.5 months of job hunting, 17 applications, 6 interviews and an uncountable amount of time spent on an internet connection so slow it may have been faster to hand deliver resumes, I have finally found a good fit and am officially employed once again! I am just finishing up my second week working as the Business Administrator for Ixcacao Chocolate.
Ixcacao is a small artisanal chocolate company, based in the hills above Antigua, Guatemala. Our product is unique because it is one of the few chocolates in the world that is made from cacao that is grown and processed in the same country, resulting in a handmade final product that is not only delicious, but beautiful as well. We are currently selling in select locations in Antigua and Panajachel, however, pending paperwork and licenses will begin expanding into Guatemala City as well as exporting to the United States.
While both the owner of the company and I are still working out the details of all that my position will entail, the majority of my responsibilities will include managing business operations, keeping financial records, creating inventory management systems, developing and maintaining customer relations, overseeing social networking and electronic communication and, most importantly, taste testing for quality assurance. :D I am excited for the opportunity the position offers for professional growth; entering the company at such a crucial time of transition and expansion makes it all that much more exciting as I am able to be a part of the process of helping Ixcacao reach it’s full potential.
One of the perks of the job is a built in work out plan. I live about 1.5 miles outside of Antigua, and the office is located just as far outside of town, on the opposite side and on the top of a hill. (For those of you who know Antigua, it is above the cross on Cerro de la Cruz.) Since my current mode of transportation is a pair of Sauconys, this is what my daily morning commute looks like: a brisk 30 minute walk along cobblestone streets, 8 minutes climbing up 329 cement steps that wind their way up, a 10 minute charge up to the peak of the hill, finished by a 5 minute somewhat flat stroll to cool off before I go into work. Although I appreciate the muscle tone that I am getting and the way the occasional chocolates that are delivered to my desk throughout the week are counteracted even before they touch my lips, the two hours it adds to my work day has encouraged me to start shopping for a motor scooter. Hopefully that will be accomplished by this weekend.
I also posted a new photo album called “My Morning Commute” to share a little bit more about where I am living and the amazing views I am blessed with on a daily basis.
One of the things that I still have not gotten used to here, and doubt that I ever will, is the bed being a shared, family space. When I was first living in San Martin, I went to buy a foam pad to make my guest bed a little more welcoming. (i.e. To cover the springs and boards.) In the back storage room of the store, the yellow foam mattresses were tightly wrapped with colorful plastic strings and stacked to the ceiling, making it difficult to tell what their true size was. As the young girl helping me reached for one that looked much too small, I clarified “Matrimonial?”, she responded by saying “Si, tres personas.” (Yes, three people.) It was difficult not to giggle. I come from a culture where matrimony specifies two people, but just because that is the way I think, doesn’t mean it is the only way.
In a Guatemalan home, especially in rural communities, you will rarely see a bedroom with only one bed in it. Beds line the walls and take up the majority of the room, often side by side or foot to head. The arrangement of sleeping has more to do with size and sex of family members than anything else. It is common that parents do not even sleep in the same bed together, (which makes one wonder how families become so large…) but instead siblings are paired off with adult family members and the littlest of the children, who are still breast feeding, are always closest to mama.
At the root of why I don’t believe I will ever adjust to this difference of cultures, is my firm grasp on personal space. My unwillingness to let go of something I cherish: privacy. It’s so rooted in North American culture, something that we see as normal, but is so foreign to many other cultures. While it is something that is hard to imagine myself integrating enough to embrace, the beauty that is able to result from such a unique intimacy is not lost on me, by any means.
Last month I had the opportunity to see the most beautiful use of the “family bed” that I most likely will ever see. Fredy’s great grandma, Mama Lacha, whom I had never met, had a stroke that it seemed she would not recover from. As the news spread the family began to gather to be with her. Early in the week she had been in a hospital and that was the last I had heard, so when Fredy picked me up and said we were going to see his grandma, I was preparing myself to walk into a crowded, under staffed and under supplied public hospital. Instead, we pulled up to a family home, with the smell of a delicious lunch welcoming us in. I was greeted by aunt, after cousin, after uncle, after more cousins, and finally made my way towards a back bedroom where his grandma was resting.
There, on the bed, was a woman of tiny proportions, the head of a great family. She wasn’t propped up by pillows, her sickness separating her from her loved ones, but instead one of her great granddaughters sat at the head of the bed, legs outstretched, with her grandmother’s frail spine leaning against her torso, cradled in her arms. This delicate woman, each wrinkle on her gracefully aged face, well earned by her 98 years, 3 children, 20 grandchildren and so many great grandchildren no one in the family was able to give me an exact number, was being held by a woman at least 70 years her junior, whom no doubt she had held with similar tenderness and care just two decades earlier.
As the afternoon went on, different family members took turns being the support to Mama Lacha, holding her, letting her know they were with her. She had lost sight and was not speaking at this point but it was more than apparent that she knew her family was there.
Later that week Mama Lacha passed away, in the same peaceful manor in which I had met her, resting in bed and enveloped by the outpouring of her families love for her. As is Guatemalan custom, there was an all night velorio (wake) held the night she passed away followed by a burial in the town where she had spent the majority of her life, where her children and many of her grandchildren had been born.
I had the opportunity to be a part of an intimate time with this family, to watch them process the loss of their sister, mother, grandmother, great grandmother, aunt and friend. Not only to mourn the loss of a loved one, but to say goodbye to the home they all had such fond memories of -- working in the coffee finca that surrounded the house, bathing in the creek which wound calmly through the back yard and most of all receiving the love of what I gathered from stories was an independent, honest, funny and well respected family leader.
Though it was through difficult circumstances, I am thankful for the opportunity I had to be a witness to these events as well as to have been welcomed as a part of the family. While I may never fully embrace the details of life here, I am happy to accept the love that results from them.
I started writing this entry and the one that follows it (To Give & Receive) the week before Christmas, during my last few days of Peace Corps. Over the past month I have gone back to them several times, trying to finish them up to post, and each time I felt like they were still unfinished. I realize that more than being unfinished, I feel that I can’t put into words what the Gomez family means to me. So even though I feel these posts may not do justice to their family, or the relationship I have with them, I’ll share them with you anyway.
Last May I had the chance to go to Belize with two wonderful friends, Kiera, a fellow Peace Corps Guatemala Volunteer, and Jessica, a friend from home who had just finished serving with the Peace Corps in Rwanda. When we crossed the border from Guatemala into Belize, Jessica was the first in line at the border agent counter. Shortly after stepping forward, she was asked if anyone else traveling with her was also with the Peace Corps, she said yes, that we all were, and at that point the agent asked Kiera and I to both come forward as well. Not having any idea where this was going, my heart instantly started to race. With inconspicuous tears forming, just enough to make his dark eyes glisten, the border agent explained to us that when he was young a Peace Corps volunteer lived near his family. He said that she is the reason he had the opportunity to go to school, to be successful, and provide for his family in a way that he never thought possible. He thanked us for the work we were doing in our communities, stamped our passports, wished us a happy stay in Belize and sent us on our way.
As I sit in my new apartment, in an unfamiliar town, these words come back to me. The past two weeks have been a whirlwind; finishing the library project, having goodbye meals with coworkers and friends, packing and gifting belongings to my favorite people in town and moving across the country. Multiple times a day, for at least the last two weeks I was in San Martin, I have been asked “¿Qué vas a dejar para mi como un recuerdo?” (What are you going to leave me as a memory?) Depending on the mood I was in and who was asking, this question had the ability to push me to the limit of my frustration. Besides the fact that I felt like many of the people asking didn’t want something to remember me by, but more just something for free, I didn’t realize what it was that really bothered me about this, until today. I realized that I have been asking myself this same question for the past two years. What was I going to leave in San Martin, that would make a difference, that would be remembered? As my Peace Corps service is wrapping up, this question has been forced from a lingering, unspoken thought in the back of my mind, to the forefront of my thoughts, demanding not just endless wondering, but an answer.
Driving out of town in the early morning hours, I left a Guatemalan mother standing with her husband and three of her seven children, tears streaking her weathered cheeks, becoming smaller and smaller in the side view mirror, as I left them in San Martin as a piece of my past, the starring roles of my Peace Corps story. Every day since then, someone from the family has called me. The first call was prompted by Abner, the 13 year-old, oldest child. Mama Juana told me that the family had come home from church and found Abner crying, so they decided to call. Through the pauses in his tears the routine which has continued everyday now for a week , began -- I ask how they are doing, they tell me they are sad, that it’s not the same without me, they tell me to take care of myself and then pass me on to the next eagerly awaiting family member, from the 80 year-old blind grandmother, Doña Luz, to the feisty three year-old, Juanita. It’s when the phone makes its way to Juana that I can no longer hold back my own tears. Each time she finds new words to express to me her feelings. She says she can’t find a way to feel calm or at peace, that she is sad in a way she doesn’t know how to fix, like she has lost her own sister. She tells me she worries something will happen to me, and that she can’t do anything to take care of me now. She says she doesn’t know when the sadness will leave her and can only pray that God will take care of me and be thankful for the time I was there and for what I have given their family.
It is in Juana’s words that I find my answer. What have I left in San Martin that will be remembered? Who will remember me, like the border agent in Belize remembers his Peace Corps volunteer, as the one who made a difference? Knowing the answer to this is at least one family, even if only one out of a whole community, leaves me satisfied with the way I invested my time in the past two years. I am leaving in San Martin a happy, mischievous little boy, who may not have lived long enough to see his fifth birthday, for something as simple as an untreated umbilical hernia. I leave a 1.5 year-old, big brown-eyed baby girl with uncontrollable hair and a strong personality, with my name and hopefully at least a faint memory of who I am. I leave an eager big brother with basic computer skills and the opportunity to continue studying instead of starting to work in the coffee fields at 13 years-old. I leave a timid, but smart, 35 year old mother of seven, with a stack of children’s board books and the ability to sound out words and write her own name. I leave a bright-eyed, innocent eleven year-old girl with the example that women have the right to education and opportunities, and hopefully a planted seed that will encourage her to go against what she sees as the norm all around her. I leave a family, despite the differences in economic status, color of our skin or cultures, that after two years I can honestly say I have become a part of.
Ask anyone who has served as a Peace Corps Volunteer and they will probably tell you that they got more out of the experience than the people they were serving. Although Juana and Augusto have repeatedly told me they have nothing to give me that could repay me for the role I have played in their family, I can honestly say that the debt I owe them is much greater. I joined Peace Corps because I was looking for a way to share the blessings I have been given in life with others. I was born in a wealthy country, received a university education debt free and was at a place in life where I didn’t have responsibilities tying me down. My whole life I had been told to love others like God loves me -- but how? I didn’t know the answer to that question, but I came to Guatemala anyway, hoping to show love and in some way share what I had been given.
Two years ago I moved into the house that the previous Peace Corps volunteer had lived in, and received with the house the blessing of children. Although overwhelming at times, they gave me the connection to their family, which turned out to be invaluable. Our interactions started out small, me sending over a batch of pancakes or extra vegetables I had from the market, but whatever small gesture I tried to make, it was always reciprocated with something better. Juana would send over a plate of food with the biggest piece of meat from her pot, and instead of receiving it with a thankful heart, I felt guilty. I knew that was the only meat they would eat all week, if not all month. At first my response was to stop sending things to them, so they wouldn’t feel obligated to send something back. This helped a little with the amount of food I received from them, but it also made my trips to their house fewer. Then I hurt my knee and had to come home; during my trip to San Martin before flying back to the states, I hobbled down my rocky alleyway on crutches, hugged all the kids and Juana and promised I would come back. Despite the expense and communication difficulties of calling a house full of English speakers to reach me, they called multiple times to check on me and see how I was recovering. After five months in the States, it was because of these calls that I knew I had to go back to San Martin, to finish what I had started. I was welcomed back by the Gomez family with open arms and a chicken dinner, provided by one of the families few chickens. It was at this point that the tradition began, anytime I came back from a trip, whether it was one night to the nearest city or a trip home to visit family in the States, they welcomed me back -- sometimes with something as simple as a cup of coffee and a piece of bread, but there was always something.
I embraced this tradition because I enjoyed their company and liked to have a reason to go to their house, but it was more than just a dinner invitation I was receiving each time I walked into their small, pieced together kitchen of corrugated metal, boards and plastic sheets. I was receiving their love.
For me it has always been easy to receive love from family and friends -- the people who have known me all my life, others whom I have been bonded to through a shared experience and even those who may have only crossed my path briefly. But to feel completely loved and accepted by people so different from me, who had no reason or motivation to love me, was harder to accept. I was supposed to be helping them; they are poor and I have so much more to give. But that is where I was wrong. I went to Guatemala to live out the calling to love others, and what I found was people who were doing just that. Despite the little that they had, they chose to share it with me. It didn’t matter that I had more possessions or access to resources, the Gomez family showed me their love by sharing all that they had and asking for nothing in return. So each time Juana or Augusto thanks me and tells me they will never have the ability to pay me back for what I have given them, I search for the words to convey to them that they already have. They have taught me what love is, how to give and to receive.
As I mentioned in my “The Seasons They Are A-Changin” blog that I wrote in November, I wanted to finish strong in San Martin and as I look back on the last six weeks I spent there, I feel like I did just that. I did things that I always wanted to do but never made time for. My neighbor, Doña Juana, taught me the three day process of making refried beans. (After seeing how much work goes into them, I know why they are so delicious!) I spoiled my favorite kids -- letting them stay over late watching movies, giving them special candy and gum from my ‘el norte’ stash and on my last Sunday I had a kids-only pancake breakfast with strawberry and dulce de leche sauces I brought back from the capital. I spent long hours painting, organizing and finishing last minute details of the library. I gave literacy classes to Doña Juana -- when we started she only knew vowels and after only 40 hours of working together she is now able to recognize all letters of the alphabet, write her name, and sound out words; but more importantly she now has an even stronger desire to continue learning and knows that she is more than capable of doing so. I had one-on-one tamale lessons with Doña Ana; in a smoke filled kitchen I learned how to tell when the masa (dough) is done, the technique of wrapping the tamales in banana leaves and how to stack them into giant pots to cook. I spent time with people I will miss instead of doing things I should have, like studying Spanish grammar.
Although I did my best to fill my days with things that were worthy of my last moments in San Martin, it was still a challenging time of up and down moments. People who I expected to be a source of support let me down, while others, who I never would have realized I had made an impact on, stood tearfully by my side to wish me well and see me off. Some days I wanted to sneak out my gate in the middle of the night to not have to deal with any more goodbyes or questions about what I was going to do with my belongings. It was on those days that I needed to look at the details of life to be encouraged. Since November 4th (the first day back in town after spending a week in Antigua saying bye to my group of Peace Corps friends) until December 15th (my last day in San Martin) I have kept a list of three things a day I am thankful for. Some might seem simple or insignificant from the outside, but this list is something I know I will appreciate looking back on, which will remind me of the complex simplicity that is life in San Martin. Here is a condensed list for your reading pleasure :D
I am thankful for my tea collection because it gives me something to offer visitors.
I am thankful for late morning showers, under a hot tin roof.
I am thankful for starry nights because it makes leaving the warmth of my bed a little less painful when I have to go outside to go to the bathroom.
I am thankful for the letter ‘Ch’ because it represents growth and knowledge, and makes Juana smile.
I am thankful for earplugs.
I am thankful for calls from home and supportive parents.
I am thankful that I have a flushing toilet instead of a latrine.
I am thankful for extra blankets to put on my bed.
I am thankful for birthday packages that arrive in September, October and November.
I am thankful to only have 36 more days of being in a long distance relationship.
I am thankful for the indigenous mama who fell asleep on my shoulder and helped keep me warm on the windy bus ride home.
I am thankful for afternoon naps.
I am thankful for neighbors who care enough to wait up for me when I come home late.
I am thankful for my boyfriend who is one of the most giving and forgiving people I know.
I am thankful for paint highs not lasting that long. (Painting with oil based paint in a closed room, for four hours is never a good idea.)
I am thankful for 6:45am calls that motivate me more to get out of bed than my alarm can.
I am thankful for hugs from Lucas, my six-year-old neighbor.
I am thankful for to-do lists that are accomplishable.
I am thankful for having enough privacy to be able to wash dishes at my outdoor sink in my bath towel.
I am thankful for sunny mornings when the clouds wrap themselves around the tops of the mountains.
I am thankful for text messages that remind me I am loved.
I am thankful for less than over-full buses.
I am thankful for Yener and how full of life he is.
I am thankful for crispy cinnamon bagels.
I am thankful that I haven’t contracted TB (or anything else!)
I am thankful for things coming together better than I could have planned for or forced into place.
I am thankful for health insurance.
I am thankful for fried plantains.
I am thankful for being excited about where I will be living post-Peace Corps.
I am thankful for invitations to Thanksgiving dinner.
I am thankful for helpful, non-creepy taxi drivers.
I am thankful for understanding that no matter how patient I think I have become, I’ll never be patient enough to live in Guatemala without frustration, but that’s okay.
I am thankful for the people who have faithfully prayed for me over the past two years.
I am thankful for supportive community members giving time and resources to the library and for everyone who has contributed to the project.
I am thankful for Juana being able to write her name.
I am thankful for Abner passing 6th grade and receiving his diploma for computer classes.
I am thankful for chocolate cake from Monte Alto.
I am thankful for Katy-Paty knowing my name, even if it does sound more like “Papi” when she calls me.
I am thankful for pictures of people I love to decorate my house and cheer up my days.
I am thankful for fresh-cut flowers on my kitchen table.
I am thankful for seeing more familiar faces in the market than unfamiliar ones.
I am thankful for matches that light on the first strike.
I am thankful for the import goods I brought back from home in August – Crest 3D white toothpaste, powdered vanilla coffeemate creamer, flavored green tea and dark chocolate covered coffee beans – and the luxury they add to my life.
I am thankful for all of the books fitting on the shelves I had built for the library.
I am thankful for oatmeal with bananas and peanut butter.
I am thankful for healthy babies.
I am thankful for Christmas lights.
I am thankful for foggy mornings.
I am thankful for being able to write a speech in Spanish.
I am thankful for Guatemalan men who set a good example for their children.
I am thankful for the confianza (trust) and friendship I have found in the Gomez family.
I am thankful for rain on a tin roof.
I am thankful for having possessions to give away that show people I appreciate them (even if they are as random as a bent and misshapen bowl, or a dried up flower growing in my yard).
I am thankful for having the option of taking my clothes and sheets to Todos Santos to be machine washed and dried, even if I do have to travel two hours roundtrip on a bumpy dirt road.
I am thankful for my beautiful hobbit sized house, and how perfectly it fits me.
I am thankful for the people I love the most here never asking for anything from me, and for this I want to give them the world.
I am thankful for sincerity.
I am thankful for Mama Juana, for the simple ways she takes care of me, like offering to wash my blankets so that they will be clean when I move into my new house.
I am thankful for tickle fights with kids.
I am thankful for my supportive, loving and helpful boyfriend.
I am thankful for having a family willing to stay up late and help me pack, and madrugar (wake up in the early morning) to see me off.
I am thankful for the balance that looking forward to going home for Christmas and living in Antigua offers, to the sadness of leaving San Martin, that would otherwise be weighing me down.
I am thankful to have learned what living simply really means.
I am thankful for love, for learning to give and receive.
I am thankful to feel that I have finished well.
In the past two weeks, I have finished Peace Corps, moved out of San Martin into a small town close to Antigua, Guatemala (about 40 minutes from the capital) and am now enjoying spending the holidays with family in California. I will soon be heading back to Guatemala to start looking for a job. I'm excited to see what the next stage of life in Guatemala will look like and to continue sharing with you some of the adventure. But, before I move onto what’s next, I want to wrap up loose ends, starting with a recap of finishing up the library project.
On December 10th we had an inauguration ceremony for the library, combined with my town going away party. Our master of ceremony for the event and one of the library board members drove around in a pickup announcing the town-wide invitation two days before the event. The day of the event, I nervously waited for people to show up. Over two hours after the scheduled time (you would think I would be used to this by now…) the town market started filling up and we were finally ready to start! After giving my speech, the board of directors presented me with a plaque of recognition of thanks, and the community was given time to come forward -- which turned into the longest line of hugs, thanks and gift giving that I have even seen. After the ribbon cutting, we opened the door to the library and invited people to pass through and also passed out a snack of small tamales and coffee. I was exhausted by the end, with so much preparation and stress leading up to the actual event, but it was all worth it. Below is the speech I gave, translated from Spanish (if there are any awkward parts, just imagine that it was much more eloquent in Spanish ;D)
Good afternoon. Thank you for coming to celebrate with us today. Today we are celebrating two things, the inauguration of the community library project and my going away party, so I want to take the opportunity to thank the community of San Martin, that is each one of you. When I arrived here, two years ago, San Martin was an unknown place to me, but now, after living here I feel like it is my town. Thank you to each one of you for sharing San Martin with me. Thank you for always making me feel welcomed and a part of the community. Thank you for inviting me into your homes and into your lives. But more than this, thank you for being my neighbors, co-workers, friends and Guatemalan family. I have gotten used to living here and it is going to be very hard to leave, but I will never forget the friendship and memories I have here in San Martin.
Now, I want to share with you a little bit about why I wanted to work on this project. In the first months that I was living here, I noticed that there were not many books. This was sad to me because I have good memories of when I was little of the books that I read. Because of this I asked for the support of my friends and family in the States to send me children’s books to share with the kids that live closest to my house. Although a few kids were happy to have these books to read, I still felt that this was not the solution to the problem. I started to think about something bigger that would be able to benefit the whole community. After talking to different people in the community, that also thought San Martin could benefit from a library project, I started to look for a way to accomplish this. Close to a year ago I started researching and applying for donations of books, money to buy the necessities to start a library and support in the community to secure a location for the project. Thanks to God, I found support from various organizations, friends and family in the States, and from all of you who were happy to work together to see that this project would be a success. As a result, today we have what is the beginning of a community library here in San Martin Cuchumatán.
I want to think everyone who has shown support for the library – especially the community leaders, teachers and the board of directors. Without your support we would not have the successes we are celebrating today.
I have many hopes for this library. I want it to be a resource for the students of San Martin, to help them move forward with their educations. I also hope it will be a support to the teachers to help them provide instruction to their students. I want children to be able to come here to read, to grow within them a desire to learn more about themselves and the world they are a part of. I want those who wanted to but did not have the opportunity to study, to take advantage of a new way to learn. I want the people in the community who are fighting to learn how to read to come and enjoy the books and notice how they are improving, little by little, each time they come. I want this to be a small step for San Martin to reach a future where education is not just an option for few, but an opportunity for all.
Today I am going to turn this project over to you, the community of San Martin, but I also want something in exchange. I want your promise that you will support the board of directors to move forward towards success. If we leave the responsibility in the hands of just a few people, it will not be possible for much growth. But, imagine, if each one of you promise to do whatever it takes to see that this library will be a great resource for all of you, what I am turning over to you today will only be the beginning. With all of your support behind it, this project has the capacity to grow greatly. Thank you so much for the support that you already have shown, to be here today to celebrate together. I know that this is only the beginning of something very beautiful in the community.
I am so thankful that God gave me the opportunity to live here in San Martin with all of you. I hope that this project can be a memory that I leave behind to show my gratitude, in a small way, for all that San Martin has done for me. Thank you so much to each one of you.
As I run around in circles trying to wrap up odds and ends of the library project, I realize I haven’t been very diligent about keeping you all up to date on our progress. So, although a little behind schedule, like many things in Guatemala, here’s what’s been going on in San Martin!
In January 2010, almost two years ago, I invited friends and family to be a part of a project I called ‘Lovin’ Libros’, to contribute to a collection of books that would be used by the kids that live closest to my house. Package by package, received by the post office an hour away, down a bumpy dirt road, the collection grew. Thanks to the generosity and time many of you dedicated to carefully choosing books, a wobbly mint-green bookshelf in my extra bedroom, became filled with colorful paged stories that soon became well loved. We read ¿Eres Tú Mi Mamá? (Are You My Mother?), La Gallinita Roja (The Little Red Hen) and El Pasotrcito Mentiroso (The Boy Who Cried Wolf) over and over again. Although this was fulfilling my desire to foster creativity and development in the most frequent visitors of my home, soon I was asked by unknown little faces in the street, when they too could come over to read books. While I knew opening my doors to all the children of San Martin was not a viable solution to this problem (for reasons related both to limited space and sanity) I wanted to do something that would result in a resource that would be available to more than just a few families in town. Without realizing what I was getting myself into, thus began the San Martin Community Library.
I knew what I wanted to accomplish, but wasn’t exactly sure where to start. Figuring the things we needed the most were books and a location to keep them, I started there and figured the rest would fall in place to fill in the gaps. I met with town government officials to explain to them my idea, and asked if they might have a suggestion of where we could locate it – all the while eyeing the room next door to their office that was currently being used to store old, broken school desks. They caught the hint, pledged their support to the project and said the room was mine. The next step was tracking down organizations to donate books. After making dozens of calls and sending out email after email, I found a few companies and organizations more than willing to help. (Big thanks to Child Aid, Darien Book Aid and Distribuidora Cultural Aguila!)
In June of this year I opened a FOG (Friends of Guatemala) fundraising account and again asked for the help of friends and family. In a short amount of time and with help from many, we raised $2,885. With this money I have purchased more books ($928), custom built and locally made furniture ($516), paint to brighten up the room and for maps of the World, Guatemala, Huehuetenango and Todos Santos ($138) and a computer (Thank you, Computers for Hope!), printer and copy machine ($706).
As everything was coming together with the things needed to start a library, what still was lacking was a group of people to take over the task once I leave in December. Trying to involve the correct people and not overlook anyone who could potentially make or break the long-term success of the project, I decided the best person to go to as my primary contact was the local school director, Profe Mario. Although excited about the project, his busy schedule made him difficult to track down and a two month long national teacher’s strike set back the process even more. I was frustrated by the lack of progress, but also didn’t want to go around anyone important, offending community members and causing the project to lose support. Finally in mid-October the strike ended and I was able to schedule a meeting with Profe Mario; all of the teachers were invited and were put in charge of inviting one parent each. From this group I hoped to form a committee that would oversee the library.
...to be continued (keep reading part 2!)
The day of the meeting, over twenty people showed up. I was excited about the turnout and eagerly started explaining what resources the library already had, what we still needed and the support I was requesting from them as potential committee members. There was good discussion amongst the group, but the meeting didn’t end in the way I was hoping. Everyone was in agreement that since it was going to be a community library, decisions shouldn’t be made without first informing the entire community. A meeting to be held in the town market was planned for the following week. Profe Mario agreed to send a note of invitation home with each student and I promised to make a town announcement.
In a small town without a local newspaper, radio or tv station and where gossip spreads much faster than real news, there are limited ways to spread information, but what options are available are affective. For $6.25 I hired the nurse that works in the local health center, Ernesto, who found a friend with a running car and borrowed a loud speaker from one of the larger stores in town. The day before the meeting, we crawled through town in a rusty, blue Suzuki Samurai, inviting one and all to attend the upcoming meeting.
The next day I showed up at the market at 3:45, ready to set up chairs for the 4pm meeting. As I watched the time get closer to 4:30 with very few of the seats occupied, I started getting anxious. However, by the time Profe Mario finished talking and it was my turn to take the mic, there was standing room only, with a large crowd spilling out the back doors. Again, I gave my speech about the project, showed some books I had brought as demonstrations and then described what the responsibilities of the library committee would be. As I finished I announced that I wanted anyone who was interested in being a part of the project to come forward to give me there name and phone number. The room full of 200 people fell silent, some with gazes towards the floor and others with a deer-caught-in-the-headlights look. Thinking my Spanish had failed me and maybe they hadn’t understood what I wanted, I repeated myself, rewording my request. Silence. I turned to a teacher standing nearby and asked if he had understood what I said, he replied “Yes, I understood and so did everyone else. They just don’t want to do it.” As I stood in front of this large room full of people, unsure of what to do next, Profe Mario graciously came to my rescue, taking the mic from my hands.
He addressed the crowd, “Who thinks this is a good project that should be supported by our community?” All hands went up. “Who thinks there should be a committee in charge of the project?” Again the room was full of raised hands. “Who would like to volunteer to be a part of the committee?” Silence. “Who would like to nominate someone else to be a part of the committee?” All hands went up. And so the process began of choosing the board of directors for the library. One by one, a name was suggested, the person was then located amongst the crowd, asked if they agreed to the nomination and either accepted or declined. Slowly but surely the list of ten that I had requested was filled.
Although the group started under what I would consider to be less than desirable circumstances, in the past month working together they have proven to be excited about the project and dedicated to making it a success. Together we have gotten electrical outlets installed in the library, finished final furniture orders, made decisions about how to spend limited remaining funds and planned the inauguration ceremony. Although the perfectionist in me still has a foot long to-do list looming over me, on December 10th, in less than two weeks, I will hand the project over completely to the board and say my goodbyes to San Martin, in what will be a joint celebration for the library as well as my town going away party. Although I know it will not be easy to say goodbye, I am proud of what I will be leaving behind.
Thank you to each and every one of you who have supported this project from afar – with books you have sent, the help you have given in spreading the word to your own family and friends, money you have donated, prayers you have said and encouraging words you have sent my way. Each and every contribution, no matter how small it may be in your opinion, has been a great help to me and to San Martin. ¡Muchísimas Gracias!
**Don't forget to go back to my blog homepage, scroll down below the journal entries and check out the 'San Martin Community Library' photo album**
Even after living here for two years the seasons of Guatemala still confuse me. When it is summer it’s not raining, but I have to wear a scarf, two sweaters, fleece pants and knee high socks to bed. With winter comes the rain, which is often accompanied by mudslides blocking roads and the alleyway leading to my house turning into a small river. Even though Guatemala is known as “The Land of Eternal Spring”, winter often overlaps into the months that I would expect signs of spring to start showing and there is nothing that even comes close to the changing colors of fall. I’m left longing for winter when I start to feel suffocated by all the clothes I have to wear in the dry season, and hoping for summer when I am tired of wearing rain boots.
Weather is not the only thing that comes in seasons, but while climate can be somewhat confusing, other seasons in Guatemala are much more clearly defined. There are seasons for what toys children play with – jacks, marbles, tops and kites – marbles definitely have the longest run, with competitions claiming street space and including boys who range in age from 5 to 25. There are seasons for what critters I am currently sharing my house with – june bugs and roly polies make their claim for a few weeks each, while rats, moths and spiders keep me company throughout all months of the year. There is a season when school is in session and a season of descanso (rest), though the two are often blurred by things that go on during the school year such as sports days, weeklong extracurricular activities, preparation for parades and celebrations, or teachers striking against the national government, making it difficult to know when students are actually learning. One of my favorite seasons is the Christmas season, with Gallo sponsored Christmas trees (Gallo is the most popular Guatemalan beer and sponsor of 90% of events), Christmas lights with off-key mechanical music included and tamales, tamales, tamales.
The season I am currently going through, is a season of goodbyes. It started in August with my training group’s Close of Service conference. We spent a few days in a hotel in Antigua together, going over logistics and paperwork needed to wrap up our two years of service; but more importantly sharing time with the few people who can fully understand what the experience of Peace Corps Guatemala really is. From that point on, friends from my group have left, one by one, leaving gaps in the network of support that I have become accustomed to relying on. (**Sidenote: Because of the time I spent at home last year recovering from knee surgery, I will be finishing my service two months after the date scheduled for my group) Last week I took advantage of my final vacation days to travel to Antigua to despedir (say goodbye to) the last volunteers of my group. We spent the week eating at our favorite restaurants and making the final rounds of town. The last day of my vacation, before I traveled back to my site, I woke up at 4am to see off a group of friends leaving for Nicaragua before heading back to the States. It wasn’t until I woke up the second time that morning that it really hit me. It was a struggle to convince myself to get out of bed, to motivate myself to get on the bus that would bring me back home.
I have done that trip, from Antigua to my town, at least twenty times in the last two years, but this time it was different. I was going back to my same house, town and job, but with so much missing. I no longer had someone to share meals with, to bounce ideas off of about work, to call when I needed to vent or to share happy news , to meet for lunch when running errands in the big city, or to speak English with when one more thought in Spanish is just too much. After snoozing my alarm half a dozen times, I dragged myself out of bed and rewarded myself with a bagel and coffee. Running a few last minute errands, I had to bite my lip to hold back tears when the cashier at the grocery store wouldn’t give me the change I wanted. My season of goodbyes had reached it’s climax. I flagged down the bus at the last moment, before it sped by me on the highway, and hopped on, determined to use the nine hours of idle travel time to refocus and find the motivation I would need to finish.
While I admit I have never been good at transitions, I am determined to make the next six weeks, (the last six weeks I will ever live in this community that has allowed me to call it my home), as positive as possible. I refuse to hole myself up in my house, just letting the time go by. So, I’ve started making lists. Lists of goals. Lists of projects to finish and of goodbye gifts to make. Lists of conversations to have and of Spanish grammar to study. Lists of specific things I will miss, for when the details of San Martin life start to fade. I have six weeks left, and so much to do. And for the times when lists are not motivation enough, and I start to wonder why I have decided to see this commitment to the end, I am keeping a list of thankfulness. Small things. Simple things. Things that on their own may not be much, but together give me a reason to keep going. They are the things that remind me I am blessed.
I am thankful for my tea collection because it gives me something to offer visitors.
I am thankful for late morning showers, under a hot tin roof.
I am thankful for starry nights because it makes leaving the warmth of my bed a little less painful when I have to get up to go to the bathroom.
I am blessed not for the place I will be in six months, or for where I was a year ago, but for the exact place I am right now.
Last week I turned 26 and celebrated my third birthday in Guatemala. Although some customs are harder to get used to than others, I have fully embraced the Guatemalan tendency to turn a one day event into a week full of preparation and celebration. After all, this is a big year, I’ve broken the quarter-century mark!
Since my birthday fell on a Friday, I made plans to spend the weekend in Antigua so I could see Fredy and use up some of the vacation days I have left. Not wanting to miss the opportunity to celebrate with people in my town, I decided to make Wednesday my San Martin birthday. Just as I was getting ready to leave my house to go to the office in the morning, I heard a little voice calling from the front porch. I opened the door to find Erin and three of my favorite neighbor kids lighting off fireworks. Normally the tradition is to wake the ‘cumpleañera’ (birthday girl) up at dawn with mañanaitas -- fireworks and signing outside the house and an early morning snack of hot chocolate and sweet bread. I was thankful for the extra hours of sleep that I was gifted with from my birthday crew.
I wanted to share something special with the people I am closest to in town, but didn’t want to go to the trouble of the normal birthday tradition of making hundreds of tamales and sharing them with all family, friends and acquaintances. So instead, a few weekends ago I brought a couple of boxes of Betty Crocker brownie mix back from our department capital. I spent the afternoon baking and delivering brownies. While there are many things I love about Guatemala, one thing that is lacking here is quality baked goods, especially in small towns like mine. However, since what you like is often what you are used to, I wasn’t sure how my slightly undercooked brownies would be received in comparison to the stale, tasteless sweetbread that is available here. While most of the recipients of my brownies waited until I left to taste them, everyone said they were ‘muy sabroso’ (very tasty); even if that was a lie, at least I got to eat something that I thought was delicious and show the people that I love that I wanted to share my day with them, even if in a very small way. The way the day turned out couldn’t have been better. I got to visit with some of my favorite people and since I didn’t give them an advanced warning that it was my birthday they didn’t have the chance to prepare an expensive meal for me or buy me gifts.
I came home in the late afternoon, planning to make a quick dinner and pack for my weekend away. I was only home for a minute, when from my kitchen I heard the familiar booming and popping of fire crackers. Realizing they were closer than normal, I went to my front door to find a cloud of smoke billowing underneath it. As I cautiously peeked out, Doña Anna shouted from the small hill above my house “!Es para ti! (It’s for you!). As I strained through the smoke and noise to smile and wave up at her and the rest of the family, tears came to my eyes, but they were not from the smoke. I have always thought the tradition of setting off firecrackers is pretty ridiculous, but no Guatemalan event seems to be complete without them -- birthdays, religious holidays, elections, parades, and often for no apparent reason at all. They are expensive, litter the ground with trash and are obnoxiously loud. However, it’s amazing how quickly my perception of this silly tradition changed when it was done in my honor. It wasn’t so much about the firecrackers themselves, but that someone was willing to do something to celebrate me in the best way they knew how. It made me feel completely accepted, a part of a family, without separation based on my often lacking Spanish or my glowing white/pink skin. While I have spent the majority of the last two years feeling different, for my birthday I was gifted with the sense of belonging.
The next morning I got up at 4:30am to catch the 5:30am bus that passes through town. However, at 5:23am I chased the glowing tail lights of the bus down the rainy, main street of town with my duffel bag hanging heavily on my shoulder, but with no success. Only a small glitch in the plans; I caught the 6am bus and began the 8 hour trip to Antigua. Although the trip is always long and not at all luxurious, it is worth the relaxation and change of pace that Antigua has to offer. I stayed in my favorite hotel, where I know all the staff by name, and spent the evening winding down from a tiring day of traveling with a long, hot shower, cable t.v. and delivery from Dominoes Pizza.
In the morning, the day of my actual birthday, I went to one of my favorite American owned businesses, Bagel Barn. I enjoyed a bagel and cream cheese with a cup of coffee that is way too big, but that I always enjoy down to the very last drop. I spent some time walking around town, running errands and enjoying the chance to blend in with the masses of foreign tourists crowding the streets. In the afternoon I went and got a massage. My masseuse, Deet, is a 73 year old woman, originally from Chicago who has lived in Antigua for the past 19 years. I took advantage of the opportunity for a little birthday pampering as well as to possibly find some connections that may be of use once I finish my service as a Peace Corps Volunteer at the end of the year. The relaxation and good company was well worth the $13 and hour of my time.
To top off an already great day, Fredy and I went out to dinner at Epicure, a restaurant with International cuisine, set in a colonial courtyard with twinkling lights and candles. Although the musicians that were playing the first time I had dinner there were missing this time, most likely because of the rain, we basically had the restaurant to ourselves. I had lasagna and Fredy had spinach crepes. Great food, great service and great company, I couldn’t have asked for more.
While it is always harder to be away from home and family on special days, I felt especially loved and appreciated this year, both from calls and emails from afar and from my Guatemalan and Peace Corps family close by. Maybe one of these years I will be able to be with everyone I love on my birthday, but until then I will find ways to celebrate with those that are around me, who are not my family but despite that are able to make me feel at home.
As I enter the final quarter of my Peace Corps service and start thinking about and planning for what will come next I notice I’m beginning to separate myself from life in San Martin. The need for a “break” from small town life seems to come more frequently and it gets harder to come back to site after a weekend away. After a short visit to a friend’s house last weekend, as the bus bumped along the rain beaten road, I felt the sinking feeling settling in. Returning to San Martin again. Moving in the opposite direction of the things I’m looking forward to that are still out of reach in the future. Instead of letting the feeling take hold of me, I decided to embrace my surroundings. Passing through towns tucked along the mountainous dirt road I watched life happen, appreciating the opportunity to be an observer.
A teenage boy in traditional clothing lounges on the edge of a cornfield, sending text messages from his camera phone. A middle-aged woman balances with ease a bucket of water on her head, joining a gathering outside the church. A small boy scampers up into the pila (three compartment sink) tilting his head under the faucet and diligently scrubs his ear. An elderly man being kept company by a chucho (dog), eyes shielded from the afternoon sun by a slanted hat, leans against the wall of a small store. A small girl follows a footpath leading away from the house, toting a sloshing bucket, as a puppy and piglets follow at her heels. Three generations of women gather on a porch, legs bent beneath their skirts, weaving güipiles (traditional women’s shirt) a piece of culture that ties past to present. The blooming hues of canary yellow, crimson, tangelo and magenta bring to life the name for which Guatemala is known – “the land of eternal spring”. A hodgepodge construction crew works away at an ever-growing cinder-block home; appearing mansionesque situated next to it’s adobe neighbors. No doubt the result of hard earned remittances sent from a far from home paisano (countryman). A mother, clad in apron with hands soiled my masa (tortilla dough), leans against the curtained doorway of her home, joyfully laughing as she watches her children play close by. The bus takes a wide turn, intentionally hugging the edge of the road, just missing the man who has passed out during his drunken stumble home to his wife, his mother, his children. Siblings practice soccer drills in front of their home on a small patch of grass; the sister tosses the ball to her brother as he rhythmically heads it back to her. A familiar face peers into the bus as we pass, Mynor, a youth from town. The look in his eyes suggests he’s thinking of things outside of his small town existence, absent-mindedly petting a puppy and perhaps daydreaming of the places the passing cars could take him. Clusters of friends gather as mass goers mingle with Sunday soccer scrimmagers. A woman, baby slung to her back, hangs clothes on a tired line, taking advantage of a dry afternoon at the end of a rainy week. The number of small, sopping pants on display suggests her family is already larger than one might guess from her young, bright face. A forgotten chorro (faucet) flows forcefully into an already full sink, filling the air with the peaceful cadence of falling water. A caravan drives past, supporters of a popular political party crammed into the back of pickup trucks, handing out posters and promises of change. A woman sweeps the dirt in her courtyard, sending dust and snack bags in an aimless swirl, leaving nothing much cleaner. The jolting bumps of the road send me flying off my seat, reminding me that I’m not only a spectator of this picturesque landscape, I’m a part of it.
The unfamiliar faces change to the familiar, and I realize I am already home. As I get off the bus, I once again become the observed. I’m greeted by a group of children playing marbles -- “Seño Paty, Seño Paty!!” (Miss Paty) and by a sneering male voice from the shadows of the setting sun – “Buenos tardes, Señorita bonita.” Running up from the pathway to my house, I’m met by my eight-year-old neighbor, Keler, who offers to help carry my bag. As I unlock my gate Keler’s older sister, Idalia, looks down from the side of their house, waiting to see if I’m coming over to visit. Yener, one of the youngest and less patient of the siblings, peeks around the corner then scurries away towards the kitchen announcing, “La Paty esta aqui. La Paty esta aqui!” (Paty’s here!). It’s difficult to not be happy to arrive home with such a warm welcome. Even though I may have one foot inching out the door, onto the next step in life, I’m definitely not ready to be done here. Not yet.
Literacy is a bridge from misery to hope...the means through which every man, woman and child can realize his or her full potential.
-- KOFI ANNAN, Nobel Peace Prize Winner & Former Secretary General of the United Nations
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I would like to invite you to be a part of an exciting improvement in the small Guatemalan community I am a part of!
Guatemala has the lowest literacy rate in all of Latin America. While statistics vary depending on the source, most measurements of literacy show that only 50% of Guatemalans can read and write. This percentage decreases greatly when looking at rural areas and even more so when focusing on women. Nationally only 30% of children finish sixth grade and less than 10% finish high school. In rural areas, such as the town I live in, educational resources and opportunities are scarce and education is often not a priority.
What started as a small collection of books in my home used by the kids that live nearby (thanks to the support of many of you!), has now turned into a project to benefit the whole community. With the help of town leaders and teachers I have been promised space in a government building in the center of town where the San Martin Community Library will be located. We have collected over six-hundred books through donations by various organizations and individuals, but we still have a long way to go before the library will be ready to use.
I have committed to fundraising $3,500 to pay for the libraries start-up costs. This money will pay for furniture (bookshelves, tables, chairs, benches and a librarian’s desk), additional books that will focus on specific needs in the community such as school text books, literacy teaching tools and resources for farmers, paint to spruce up the room as well as for a large world map, and other miscellaneous supplies.
You can make a tax deductible donation to the San Martin Community Library by sending a check to:
Friends of Guatemala
P.O. Box 33018
Washington, D.C. 20033
Please make checks payable to “FRIENDS OF GUATEMALA” and write “Tricia Kell – Cat. II” on the memo line of the check.
If you would prefer to make a donation online, you can do so by visiting http://lovinlibros.bbnow.org/ and clicking on the ‘donate’ link. Please note, 100% of donations made by check will go directly to the project while 4.95% of your donation will be deducted by Paypal if paying online.
Our goal is to create a place where everyone in the community can have access to books. It is our hope that with better access to books will grow an appreciation and love for reading, with the ultimate goal to cultivate a higher priority on education in the community. You can be a part of helping San Martin create a better future for its children!
Please let me know if you have any questions. I look forward to updating you on the progress of this project!
In response to my last blog, my Aunt Sue posted the following comment...
"At the risk of sounding negative (& also ignorant to all the particulars) I wanted to send back one thought that I've been mulling over and over and over since I read your blog. What if the woman didn't have 8 children? Her life would certainly still be a struggle...but she wouldn't be faced with so many excruciating decisions etc."
Realizing that many people may be thinking the same thought, I decided to spend the rainy afternoon responding to this difficult question. Though I am not claiming to have a complete or even 100% accurate answer, these are my thoughts....
It’s a good question that doesn’t have an easy answer. When I first moved here I was in a similar mindset. When resources are limited, the obvious solution is to limit the number of times you have to divide them. After living here and getting to know the community better, I understand the historic and cultural background better and how it impacts family planning (or what might be seen as lack thereof). I recognize that my understanding of the situation is still limited, influenced by my personal opinions, and that it is difficult to simplify such a vast topic into a short explanation, but I will try to share a little of what I have learned.
The town I live in, like many other communities in Guatemala, is largely dependent on agriculture. Families are traditionally sustained by planting corn and beans to last through the year for their personal consumption. Much like large farm families in the US in earlier generations, it is beneficial to have a bigger family to help divide the work. Other historical influences on family size include lack of birth control options, lack of education about reproduction and the assurance that parents would be well taken care of by their children.
Two or three generations back, a family could live off of the crops they planted and even without another source of income, be sustained. However, since land is passed down through families and divided amongst the children it has gotten to the point now that many families don’t have sufficient land to grow enough food to last through the year. This will be an even bigger problem for the next generation as the land is divided once again amongst the children.
While the community is adapting by moving away from traditional farming practices and more towards export farming and other income sources, changes in family size are occurring much more slowly. While some are recognizing that by limiting the number of children they can better provide for their families, this seems to be limited to the “upper class” of the community. This is a select group that most commonly have either had the opportunity to receive an education in a bigger city and now have non-agriculture, higher paying jobs, or have lived in the States and as a result have been able to invest in the purchase of more land or capital for a local business.
Tradition lays the foundation for the tendency of larger family size; however there are many other factors that contribute to the issue as well. In our community the cultural aspects that I see as influencing family planning the most are: religion, machismo and education.
Most Guatemalans will either identify themselves as Catholic or Evangelical. It is common knowledge that the Catholic Church traditionally teaches against contraception and it has been my experience that most evangelical churches in rural Guatemala follow the same teachings. Some members of both churches choose to make their own decision about family planning, but the majority does not.
Machismo, though it can play out in many ways, can be most simply defined as the idea that masculinity is superior to femininity. (Thanks, Wikipedia!) This assumption provides a strong undertone to nearly all aspects of Guatemalan culture. In context to family planning it can have a huge or minimal impact depending on the particular couple. In couples where machismo is a strong force, the husband often maintains the viewpoint that “sewing his seed” is his right and duty as a man, and the wife has no say in when or how often she will have children. This perspective is enabled by the fact that women are afraid that if they go against their husband’s wishes, by doing something like using birth control without his consent, he will leave them, unable to provide for themselves or their children. Another way machismo can influence family size is if a woman only has daughters the couple may continue to have children until they have a son.
Education, or rather mis-education, is what I feel ties all of this together. The Guatemalan educational system is largely based on rote memorization and is greatly lacking in the encouragement of creative thought. The minority of the population that is fortunate enough to have an education, have never been pushed to think for themselves or think in a manner of cause and effect. This results in not questioning authority or traditional thought. Thus, couples continue to have many children, because that is what their parents did. The teaching of the churches against contraception goes largely unquestioned, despite the decreasing food portions that are placed in front of each child as the family continues to grow. Women believe that their role is to be submissive to their husband because that is what they have been shown by the example of their mother’s and grandmother’s.
So, yes, the simple response to the question is that if she didn’t have as many children her life would be easier. But this is coming from a culture that predominantly professes that it is the woman’s choice. In Guatemala, it seems that it can be God’s choice, or her husband’s choice, but it is never solely her choice.
As development continues to be furthered in Guatemala, and more and more people begin to be lifted out of poverty, I can only hope that factors such as family size, which continue the cycle of poverty, will begin to change. I believe the most important influence on making these changes happen is by focusing on education -- giving girls the same opportunity to learn as their brothers; encouraging non-traditional, creative thought; teaching that each person has the potential to shape their lives for the better or for the worst through their personal decisions. Although in developing nations changes seem to happen at a snail’s pace, I do believe we are moving in the right direction. Though it may begin with a private conversation in a woman’s kitchen, with baby steps we will move towards the goal.
On days when there are more setbacks than accomplishments, more annoyances than pleasures and I can think of at least a dozen places where I would rather be there is one thing that if I allow myself to think about, always puts things back into perspective. It is the realization that I will never be in a position in life as difficult as the people around me. I will never have to decide if I should pay my children’s school fees or send them to work in the coffee fields to help provide for my family. I will not go without seeing my husband for years on end, because he is working far away so he can earn more money to build us a home that is more than one room with dirt floors. I will not have to prioritize which of my eight children seems smart enough to make paying for school worth it. I will never feel shame when I am asked to sign a form and instead have to place my fingerprint on the designated line. I will not have to listen to my child cry himself to sleep because I chose to buy food instead of the medication he needs for his curable illness. I will never be trapped in an abusive marriage, held down by my illiteracy and inability to provide for my children on my own. I will never be a Guatemalan woman, living in extreme poverty, whose decisions are not based on how to live best, but simply how to live.
When coming back into town after traveling, whether from a quick trip to the department capital or a visit to the States, it has become tradition to go to my neighbors’ for dinner as soon as I get home. Knowing that it is a stretch to feed the ten mouths they already have under their small tin roof, I was at first reluctant to accept such an offer. However, after a couple of attempts at sneaking down my alleyway, followed by a stern scolding from Mama Juana for not calling to tell her when I would be home, I gave in. I have stopped feeling guilty for eating their food and instead arrive with a treat in hand (usually pancake mix or a bag of popcorn) and allow myself to appreciate the warm welcome that is always waiting. This weekend when I walked through their yard, towards the kitchen, I noticed it was much calmer than usual. There were no kids waiting to give hugs or sneak a peek into the treat bag I carried. At first I thought they may have all gone to church, but as I reached the kitchen door there was Juana, standing at the stove. After serving me a stack of hot tortillas and a bowl of beans that had been freshly cut that morning, she pulled up a stool and sat down. In all the time that we have been neighbors, I have never had the opportunity to just sit with Juana. In a family of ten, there are always clothes to wash, tortillas to make, babies to hold and animals to feed. With all of the kids scattered about town with different family members and her husband off at work, she had time just to herself, and she was giving it to me.
We talked about what happened in town while I was gone, how strange the weather has been lately, which of the kids is sick, how much the roads out of town have improved in the last few years and also tried to identify a wild herb that was gifted to her by another neighbor. With a lull in the conversation, I finally got the nerve to ask a question I had been hesitant to bring up; nonchalantly I asked her how literacy classes were going. A few months back she excitedly, but shyly, shared with me that she was going to start taking classes four times a week for two hours in the afternoon. I wondered how she would manage to take this much time out of her already busy schedule, but as the weeks passed I noticed her adjusting her routine to feed her family dinner earlier in order to make it to class on time. However, the last few weeks I noticed she has been home more in the afternoons. I assumed the time commitment had become too much, that she had decided she couldn’t spend that much time on herself when her family needed her. Although I was disappointed I didn’t want to ask about it, causing her more embarrassment at her failure to follow through. Her response was not what I expected.
With her face slightly turned downwards, she explained to me that the teacher had not been paid by the government, and until he gets paid they will not have classes. She told me that her class had not received workbooks like other women in town she knows and that even though they were only copying into notebooks, she was starting to learn her letters. With tears welling up in her eyes she confessed that she can’t even recognize her name, her confession was followed by a sadly resigned statement, “Es bonito aprender un poco. Yo no se nada.” (It is nice to learn a little. I don’t know anything.) I looked her in the eyes and told her she knows so much. She finally lifted her gaze from the floor and said, “It’s not the same. I can’t read. There is so much I miss because I don’t understand. I never went to school. My parents had eight children, five girls and three boys. My father planted corn and beans to feed our family, but we didn’t have money to pay for other things. Two of my brothers went to school, but I never did. I don’t know anything.” I tried to give her hope by saying that the classes would probably start again soon and that she is doing a wonderful thing by taking the opportunity to learn and showing her children that education is important. As I listened to my own words, they sounded empty. The saying, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.” doesn’t apply in rural Guatemala.
I know I will never be in Juana’s position in life. However, just because it will never be my reality doesn’t mean it is not reality. It’s hard to justify how my life can be filled with so many blessings, when others so close to me have so little. Although it is difficult to maintain hope when surrounded by situations like these, I know that is just what I need to do. Maintain hope and find a way when it seems like there is none.
I have been living in San Martin for a year now (not including the time I was at home for knee surgery) and I feel like I have finally fallen into the rhythm of life here. I am no longer astonished by the daily feat of micro drivers who transport 19 adults, 5 children and 4 babies over unpaved, bumpy roads without cracking even one of the 10 dozen eggs the women next to me is bringing back from the market or soiling my clean laundry that is always oh-so-nicely strapped to the roof along with the cargo of all the other passengers (and sometimes a couple of brave souls that couldn’t fit inside), all in a van much smaller than what we call a 15-passenger. It doesn’t surprise me that while chatting with my neighbor in her kitchen, the kids, who have all stripped down to bathe themselves in the warm afternoon sun, run in to tell us the pig has gotten out – shortly after our conversation is interrupted by a large, snorting pig and 3 wet, naked giggling boys in tow trying to catch it. Instead of doing everything in my power to block out the banda music blaring from blown speakers, I find myself actually enjoying it, straining to catch some of the words I don’t yet know. Erin and I have come close to mastering the technique of buying enough fresh produce on Fridays to last through the week, and even when we fall short, we have figured out ways to cook potatoes and tomatoes in varying forms to make it seem like we are not eating the same thing 5 meals in a row. In short, I guess what I have realized is that many things that were once strange and uncomfortable, have become normal. Even if situations here that are ordinary life may seem unusual to an outsider, I like the way life feels.
While I am very content with many things, there are still constant struggles that instead of improving, only seem to worsen as time goes on. Finding work that meets the requirements of my agricultural marketing project, involves the association that I was assigned to work with and interests enough people to make it successful has been my main fight. My most recent approach has been to not allow myself to have a negative outlook, and stop focusing on trying to meet all of the above, in each and every project. This has opened me up to a lot more opportunities for work, a few of which have turned into promising projects. The two projects I am most excited about right now are a San Martin community library and working with a women’s group that grows oyster mushrooms.
The community library has been an idea in the works since the first couple of months I moved here. What started as a small book shelf in my extra bedroom with children’s books (sent with love from many of you!) is in the process of developing into something much bigger. So far we have a room that was previously being used to store old broken desks, that just last week was cleared out and is now officially designated as “la biblioteca”. Along with the personal collection I have in my house, I have also received donations from Darien Book Aid (http://www.darienbookaid.org/) and ChildAid (http://www.child-aid.org/) which has increased our inventory to over five hundred, including textbooks as well. While it is encouraging to have a good start going, there is still much work to do. The next step will be to get a committee together to ensure that the library has active community involvement and doesn’t rely on my presence here.
The women’s group I am working with is from an agricultural cooperative that is in Todos Santos, an hour away from my town. I started working with them last year in October, and although the head manager of the cooperative requested my help in increasing product sales, he never followed through on anything and we didn’t seem to be moving forward. I, along with the rest of the cooperative, found out in February that the manager had been stealing money from the organization, using the money for his own personal expenses. Unfortunately no one noticed until a few tens of thousands of quetzals had gone missing ($8,000-10,000) and the cooperative was beginning to fall to the waste side. As a result many of the women who were involved in the project decided not to continue, however the handful that are sticking with it are hard workers and eager to succeed. The accountant, Felipe, who had no idea that money was going missing, (…shows the importance of checks and balances!) has stepped up into the role of manager as well, in order to get the organization moving again and bide time until there are enough profits to hire more administrative staff. We are working together to increase product awareness in the local market as well as expand into new markets. This morning we did our second food demonstration in the big Saturday market in Todos Santos. We handed out samples of sautéed mushrooms on a tortilla along with recipes. We sold over sixty packages of mushrooms in less than 4 hours, which is much more than we normally sell in Todos Santos during a whole week. Although we are coming through a rough situation, it is great to see how positive and happy the women are. I look forward to seeing what we can accomplish together.
It’s a common saying that life in Peace Corps is often like a rollercoaster – the extreme ups and downs being more noticeable and impactful at times. As I reflect on the last few weeks, I definitely feel like I am being taken for a ride.
I got to go home to California for Christmas. Although it was too short of a visit, the week was filled with eating (too much) good food, playing with my niece, visiting the beach and beautiful parks, baking and, best of all, spending time and relaxing with family and good friends. It’s a strange feeling to go home; as soon as I step off the plane in San Francisco I feel like I’ve never left. Hearing so much about culture shock I expect it to feel differently. I realize that only being home for a few days doesn’t allow for much time to think about it, but for me it is definitely noticeable in the smaller things as opposed to an obvious impact that comes all at once. Appreciating the ease of traveling the smoothly paved 150 miles from Oroville to San Francisco in three hours – it takes the same amount of time and sometimes longer to go from my town to our department capital, which is only 42 miles, but made much more difficult when traveling the winding mountain dirt roads in an old, beat-up school bus. Being easily frustrated by the lack of patience and consideration of strangers waiting in line at the grocery store or looking for a parking space at the mall and noticing how easy it is to fall into that same mentality myself. Enjoying the luxuries of a “normal” kitchen – running (warm!) water indoors to wash dishes with (not to mention dishwashers), refrigerators, ovens, toasters and coffee pots. Realizing that the variety offered on a restaurant menu can be very overwhelming when you are used to eating what is available and feeling lucky to have a choice between a handful of options. While culture shock may be less extreme for me than for others, I hope with each trip home, no matter the length, I never lose my renewed appreciation for simple pleasures like sinking into a soft couch, wiggling my toes in the carpet, taking warm laundry out of the dryer, filling the house with the smell of something delicious baking or being able to make a quick trip to the grocery store.
Although transitioning back into Peace Corps life can be hard after a trip home, the blow was softened by the anticipation of the arrival of my first visitors! Joey and Erin, two of my best friends from college, arrived in Guatemala on January 13th. We spent a couple of days being tourists in Antigua along with a day trip to hike Volcan Pacaya before making the long journey back to my town. While we were in San Martin I introduced them to friends, neighbors and the many children in town who are always intrigued by the presence of new gringos. They got to try local foods like tamales, enchiladas, caldo, choco-bananos, and of course beans and tortillas as well as a few recipes my sitemate and I tested out on them. They came with me to a meeting of a newly formed community group and to visit a family in a community nearby. A definite highlight was going on a coffee tour with a friend in town and helping with the harvest. We also celebrated Erin’s 25th birthday by inviting close to twenty kids that live in my alleyway to my house…the piñata didn’t last long! :D After leaving San Martin we went to Panajachel and Lake Atitlan, one of my favorite places in Guatemala. With the beautiful view of the lake surrounded by three towering volcanoes, the hippie vibe of Panajachel and the availability of delicious food, it’s an easy place to relax. From the lake we headed to Anna’s house which is on the Pacific Coast, close to the border of El Salvador. It was great to see Anna’s site for the first time, as well as to share with my friends another, completely different, Peace Corps Guatemala experience…and it definitely is different – palm thatched roofs, beaches, hammocks, sand, mosquito nets and hot, hot, hot! (And this isn’t even the peak of the hot season) My first attempt at playing tour guide in Guatemala gave me a chance to share a little bit of my life here. It also helped me see things through a fresh perspective and be reminded of what a diverse and beautiful country I live in. I could not have asked for better people with whom to share my normal day life and favorite places in Guatemala, as well as to explore a few new things with. Miss you already, Erin and Joey!
The Helps International (http://www.helpsintl.org/) medical clinic that I went to last January with my neighbors started today. For the past few weeks I have been promoting the clinic in our community and talking with people who may benefit from it. Having lived here for over a year now, something that continues to stand out to me is that in order to work in areas of development such as economic generation, improved nutrition or prioritization of education, you have to first address more basic needs that may be obstacles to further progress – poor health is definitely one of the basics that can be detrimental to development.
One situation I have become involved with is with a boy I met during the youth training course we had in September. Octavio is one of the most energetic, positive, and eager to learn fourteen year-olds I have ever met, despite the wheelchair that confines him. I had the opportunity to work with him for a week and get to know him. He told me that he had never been able to walk and that a couple of years ago his mom had taken him to see doctors in Tijuana. They tried to get him across the border to have surgery in the United States but were unsuccessful. Feeling like I was only getting a small part of the story, I went to Octavio’s house to talk with his mom, Candelaria. The family’s first language is Mam (the local Mayan dialect) and as a result of this communication barrier along with the obstacles of illiteracy, we were unable to communicate effectively in order for her to share more specific information about Octavio’s medical condition. Candelaria handed me a stack of papers, hoping that one of them would contain diagnostic information from a doctor, but what I found was a mix of bus schedules and doctor appointment cards from their trip to Tijuana. Having little solid information to move forward with, I decided the best advice to give them would be to go to the medical clinic to get a diagnosis. I returned to their house a couple of weeks ago with a friend that speaks Mam so she could translate and make sure that both Octavio and Candelaria understood that going to the medical clinic would not guarantee that the doctors could do anything, but at the very least they would get a true diagnosis and be able to move on from there to decide what would be best for Octavio. Even though I knew in my head the possibility of a surgery that would allow Octavio to walk was very unlikely, I was hoping in my heart that that would be the result. Impatiently waiting for the doctors’ findings, I called to check in with a friend that works for Helps coordinating the clinics. She said another staff member had met Octavio while he was waiting in line and had quickly fallen in love with his enthusiastic and friendly personality; they moved him to the front of the line and brought him into the hospital. While he waited to be seen by the doctors he raced around in his wheelchair through the smooth hallways and made everyone around him laugh; it’s hard not to have a smile on your face when he is around. It didn’t take long for the doctors to diagnose him with Spina Bifida, which means surgery is not a possibility; however the doctors are hopeful for him because he is very strong and has a good attitude. Physical therapy could help provide pain management and through strength training the best case scenario would be that he may eventually be able to walk using crutches. I am glad Octavio and his family know the reality of the situation now and what they can do to move forward from here, but it still is hard not to feel broken about his circumstance. He is such a happy, funny kid despite the obstacles he faces. I wanted to believe that his life could be easier than it is. I know my job here is not to fix everything, but it’s hard not to want to.
I haven’t been very good about updating the site lately, so I’m going to try to catch you up on the last four months without boring you too much :D
Highlights: In August I threw my first dinner party at my house, for ten Guatemalans and four gringas, in celebration of Don Augusto’s birthday. On September 15th and the days surrounding it (Guatemalan holidays never seem to be just one day!) we celebrated Guatemalan Independence day in San Martin with the traditional running of the torches, a parade, beauty pageants and talent shows. I celebrated my 25th birthday, stretching out into almost two weeks, with two surprise parties, piñatas, packages of goodies from home, special lunches and a joint birthday celebration weekend visit with Anna, a good friend from training that lives on the opposite side of the country. Although at times it’s hard to be away from home during special holidays and birthdays, it is also a good opportunity to recognize how blessed I am not only to have people at home who care for me, but here too! I met a boy with dimples and beautiful brown skin when he wandered into my office in town – His name is Fredy, he lives in Guatemala City and was coming through San Martin for work. We started dating soon after we met and even though things are still very new, I am excited to see where the relationship may lead. The Todos Santos feria marked my training group’s one year anniversary as Peace Corps volunteers and we did a good job of celebrating! We rented a house in Todos Santos where close to fifty volunteers stayed, with a costume party on the night of Halloween, I attended a traditional Mayan ceremony in the morning and watched the horse races and the following day (Día de los Muertos) went to the cemetery. It was neat to be able to participate in all of these things for the second time, having lived in the area for a year now, and be able to understand some of the traditions and beliefs better. I had the privilege of working with a group from Vets without Borders Canada, to help coordinate their first clinic in San Martin – hopefully it will not be the last and their efforts will begin to make an impact in the amount of stray and uncared for dogs here. For Thanksgiving I was invited to celebrate in Tejutla, San Marcos along with fifteen other volunteers. We were hosted by the amazing, Amanda and Joe, along with Joe’s host family. In true Guatemalan style, the holiday stretched into three days and mixed in with birthday celebrations (HAPPY 30th KIERA!!). We were all warmly welcomed into the family and celebrated with a candlelit dinner that included three turkeys (fresh, not frozen…I saw them with feathers!!) It was great to be able to celebrate and feel not so far from home, but also to share an American tradition with Guatemalans and to recognize that we often have many of the same things to be thankful for.
To give some insight into some of the work I have been doing, below is an article I wrote for a newsletter that is produced by (and for) Peace Corps Guatemala’s agriculture volunteers. And if you still want to know more about what I’ve been doing, I’ve also added pictures to my albums, so check those out too… I’m sure they will speak much more about my life here than my words can. I will try to be better about posting updates more regularly!!
As I move past the half-way point in my service, I am doing my best to not become overwhelmed by the “to-do” list that seems much too long for the short year ahead and instead am concentrating on prioritizing the needs I see in my community and how I can be a part of addressing them. During the past year something I have noticed in San Martin, that I am sure is not unique to my community alone, is lack of opportunity for youth. This applies both to educational opportunities as well as options for entertainment. Seeing this as an area that was lacking in my community, I was excited to find out my agricultural association was interested in forming a group for local youth. The group is called CDF (Con Derecho a Un Futuro/With the Right to a Future) and has organized groups all throughout Guatemala, as well as a presence in Honduras and Nicaragua. Through the support of a Norwegian nonprofit, the goals of the organization are to coordinate and implement activities and to create opportunities for youth in rural communities. These goals are currently being realized by scholarships for continued education, training workshops, providing grants to support small business development and locally planned events targeted toward jovenes (youth).
In just a few short months I have had the opportunity to work with this group in varying circumstances. The first event that our CDF group participated in was organizing a “Dia de Juventud” (Youth Day) community celebration. The event was pulled together in less than a week and against all odds was a huge success. We had a full day of activities including soccer and basketball tournaments, a “marathon” (two loops around our town’s main roads), choco-fruta and fruit cocktail sales, a raffle and a cultural night with performances from a well known clown from our department capital and a musical performer from Peru! We also had a week long manualidades (crafts) training given by INTECAP (a well recognized national training institute) in which twenty-five youth learned how to make piñatas, baskets made from recycled newspapers, centerpieces and decorations for weddings, quinceañeras and birthdays, flower arrangements and cakes. The week culminated with an exposition open to the community to show what they learned and a ceremony in which each participant received a diploma in recognition of the skills and knowledge gained. Halloween was celebrated for the first time in the history of San Martin, with the collaboration of my sitemate’s (the one and only, Erin Devlin) nutrition class and the CDF group. The community was invited, by Erin’s booming voice over a bullhorn while she paraded through town with a hoard of children in tow, to participate in an afternoon carnival complete with a costume contest, games, sweets to share and performances that were planned and led by the women and youth. While the haphazard way the event played out with over two-hundred people in attendance could have been overwhelming, the end result was definitely a success – providing an opportunity for people in the community to take a break from the routine of everyday life, embrace the opportunity to be creative, step up to the challenge of being in a leadership role and amongst all of this they hopefully learned a little bit about personal health, nutrition and cost of production along the way! Most recently the CDF group had the opportunity to practice the skills they learned in the INTECAP training by preparing different crafts that were displayed and sold at the Feria del Cordero in Paquix, in the cumbre of Huehuetenango. This event not only encouraged them to apply the training they have received but also provided an opportunity to see a little more of the beautiful country they live in and give them a perspective outside of San Martin, even if only for a day.
The more I work with this group and develop relationships with them as individuals, it is encouraging to recognize great potential for future community leaders and entrepreneurs within them. As we continue to work together my goal is to focus future projects and events in a way that encourages creative income generation and the responsible use of economic resources, through an understanding of cost of production and implementation of personal savings as a way to achieve personal goals. Aside from working with the group as a whole, I also am working with individuals who have demonstrated interest and potential in entrepreneurship.
I would encourage anyone looking for a new group to work with to get involved with youth. Three months ago I would not have thought I would be interested in working with youth and if I were not presented with the idea from my association I may have missed the opportunity. From my experience working with CDF I have realized that even though our project goals may not necessarily point directly to this age group, and because of this we may tend to overlook them, once you get started it is easy to see the potential that can be realized and how applicable what you have to teach can be. It’s true, your meetings may often turn into chisme (gossip) sessions about who likes who and, sadly, I’m finding that no culture seems able to escape the drama brought on by “mean girls”. However, there is also great opportunity for working with people who, given a little guidance and help to recognize the opportunities that may seem out of reach on their own, have the potential to become change agents within their communities.
After spending nearly five months in California, recovering from reconstructive knee surgery and jumping through many, many hoops to be able to come back, I am once again living in Guatemala! I’ve spent the last two weeks reclaiming my house (squishing spiders and getting rid of evidence from the rats and mice that have been squatting in my casita), celebrating my return with other volunteers, getting reacquainted with neighbors and friends and trying to refocus on work. Though much of the time I was at home I was focused on when I would be able to come back here, it is hard not to miss the comfort of home and the closeness of family and friends. All the same, I know this is where I want to be and I am blessed to have people around me that remind me of that when I begin to doubt it.
My neighbors, the Gomez family (the same family that I went to the medical clinic with in January), are a continuous source of support and encouragement. During the time I was home they called regularly to find out how I was doing, despite the struggle they faced to communicate when someone who didn’t speak Spanish answered the phone. The night I got back into town they invited me and Erin over for dinner. I received huge hugs from everyone in the family and Don Augusto, with tears in his eyes, told me when he found out I was coming back he felt like his sister was coming home. It was also a special night because I got to meet the newest member of the family, Baby Katy (Kattelin Patricia Gomez Gomez), who was born while I was gone. After I had been in California for a couple of months, they called to ask if it was okay to use my name. I don’t think I will ever be able to express in words or actions how much this family has come to mean to me in such a short amount of time. No matter what I do to show my appreciation for their ongoing kindness and the way they have embraced me as a part of their family, I always feel like they are giving more to me than I am to them. I am endlessly impressed by how humbly they live and how freely they give.
My welcome back has been stretched out both in time and distance across the country. The women’s group that is a part of the association I work for made a surprise tamale lunch the first day I was back at work. This was no small accomplishment, for multiple reasons -- it seems batches of tamales cannot be made in increments smaller than hundreds, the process usually begins at sunrise and keeping a secret in a small town is close to impossible. Though I will admit I had pretty much figured out what was going on by the time lunch was served two hours later than they had planned and Erin had done everything she could think of to try to keep me occupied, I appreciated their efforts all the same. At least once a day I am asked how my leg is and if I am healthy. (I think it was a common belief in town that I had some kind of terminal illness that was keeping me away, which actually would be easier to explain here than the delays of bureaucracy.) I continuously feel appreciated by my fellow volunteers and friends here in Guate; even though there may be many chicken buses and unpaved, muddy roads between us, the distance is not far enough for your support and love to go unnoticed. I’m so happy to be back and can’t wait to continue the welcome back celebrations with all of you in person!
There is much more I could write, but it will have to wait for my next post!
For now I will just say, whether from stateside or por el lado chapin, I am so thankful for each one of you and the support you have given me to come back here! I could not have done it alone.
It’s the small things that make my life happy here. The sun coming out on the day I do laundry. My host mom telling me “esta cayendo el agua” when I come out of my room in the morning (“The water is falling”…meaning, I get to take a shower instead of a bucket bath.) Being the first person to sit in a bus seat. Saying something sarcastic/a joke in Spanish and having it be understood. Drip coffee instead of instant. Looking out my window every morning to see how much smoke is coming out of the volcano. Finding a clean public bathroom. Being called Tricia instead of Pati (I really don’t mind Pati, but I definitely still think of myself as Tricia.) Having little kids smile at me when I pass them instead of looking at me like I’m scary. Refried bean day.
The main mode of transportation here are camionetas (or “chicken buses” as they are commonly referred to by gringos). They’re old school buses from North America with the seats pushed closer together, “oh shit” bars attached to the ceiling and seats, and clouds of thick, black exhaust leaving an ever present trail. Two people in a seat is luxurious, three is comfortable and four, or a family of five, with two more people standing in between each seat in the isle, is normal. There are two people that work on the buses, chofers (drivers) and ayudantes (helpers). The Audantes climb to the roof to store and retrieve larger items (from sacks of bananas to 20 foot long logs to refrigerators), yell out the final destination and upcoming stops and collect fares. Collecting the fares is definitely the most impressive part of the job description. No matter how full the bus starts out, I’ve never been on one that doesn’t stop for one more person to get on along the way. After the bus is packed full and on it’s way, the ayudantes start at the front of the bus and move from seat to seat collecting fares. You’d think that because the ayudantes have to squeeze between people where there is already no room to spare, they would be small boys or at least teenagers -- instead they’re most commonly full grown men, often with pot bellies. The fun really starts on the mountain roads when the bus ride turns Indiana Jones style and despite almost sitting on top of the person next to you, there is still room for shifting and falling off seats. Random muscles in my body are getting stronger from contorting and shifting weight in a way that keeps me in the seat, but off the lap of the unsuspecting Guatemalans next to me. It seems to be a common belief that a drop of rain inside the bus would be catastrophic -- so anytime it starts to rain all the windows go up and it turns into a steam room. I’ve come to appreciate my knotted hair from the wind tunnel effect on hot days, rather than having other people’s sweat on my body. You’re lucky if your stop is a busy one and many people are getting off with you, but if you’re not, you definitely have to be ready to jump; by the time you press your body through the crowd and make it to the front, the bus has already begun to speed up again before you’re even down the first step. It’s definitely something I need to practice more, in hopes of never falling flat on my face in the middle of a highway. (I’ve come close.) But if it does ever happen, at least I can be sure it will be great entertainment for everyone else on the bus. I haven’t seen a chicken on any buses yet, but I am sure that will change once I am living more rurally in a few weeks.
September 15th was Independence Day. The celebrations started two days before the holiday when people started running the torches. It’s tradition to get a group of people together to run from one city to another, carrying one or multiple torches…think Olympic torch running with lots of chaos. It doesn’t matter how big the group is, where they start or how far they go, some go only a few miles while others start at dawn and go marathon distances to get to the capital. The groups of runners are usually accompanied by a sponsoring camioneta or truck that follows behind the group honking the whole way, playing music and waving flags and banners. As a group passes through town people come out of their houses to watch and throw water on the runners. People stand above on terraces and throw plastic sacks filled with water, dump buckets, spray hoses, toss water bottles…whatever works. The people riding in the buses following the runners throw water back at the people standing on the streets. No one is excluded from the festivities -- so whether you’re walking down the street to go to the store or driving in your car home from work, you better carry an umbrella or roll up your windows. I asked multiple people how and why the traditions of running the torches and throwing water started and the common response was “to celebrate our independence”. I realized that I don’t think anyone knows why they do it, but it’s an interesting way to celebrate anyway. The morning of the 15th there was a big parade in my town followed by performances in the central plaza. As with every celebratory event in Guatemala there were lots of bombs and fire crackers set off for many days before and after the holiday. The bigger the event, the bigger the bomb explosions seem to be. There were also competitions happening in the street a few blocks from my house -- the most exciting of which were catching a greased pig and climbing to the top of a 20 foot greased pole. I heard that no one made it to the top of the pole this year and that the guy who caught the pig fell and busted his front teeth; not so sure the prize of Q.200 ($25) would be worth the pain, but at least he has a good story to tell!
My Agricultural Marketing group spent the last week in another part of the country, visiting current volunteers that are working in Coban (the department of Alta Vera Paz). We stayed with host families in an indigenous community of 2,000 people that is centered around a tea cooperative. Many of the families have been living in this area for more than one hundred years, growing tea plants for their livelihood. My host family was a young couple with a toddler son. We arrived the first night around dinner time. After eating dinner with the family, the father asked me if I wanted to go to his dad’s house to meet the rest of his family. After walking through a corn field and up a small hill we arrived at the house and my host dad pointed me towards a door. I walked in and found myself in the middle of at least twenty-five people gathered in a large kitchen area -- when I walked in they immediately started clapping. I’ve figured out that my Spanish gets noticeable worst in awkward situations like this… I thanked them for welcoming me into their home then started making my way around the room to meet the 11 brothers and sisters of my host dad, his parents, nieces and nephews. I spent the rest of the night learning words in the local Maya language, Q'eqchi’. For the remainder of the week when I would be walking the dirt roads home from the tea cooperative offices I was greeted by name by multiple family members. Hospitality and generosity are not just values in the community, it’s life. Despite the fact that the first night at dinner I made the little boy cry, eventually he started calling me “canchita” (little blonde girl) and by the end of the week “tia” (auntie). Although it was a little overwhelming to go from the more populous and developed town I am used to living in, to a small rural community, it was good to have an introductory experience that is more representative of what I will soon be living and working in.
The first of three birthdays that I will spend in Guatemala passed this week. Although I miss all of you at home, having my birthday here made me realize how thankful I am to already have great friends and family here, also. My training group helped me celebrate while we were in Coban and when I came back my host family had a party for me. My host mom made tostadas and the biggest strawberry cheesecake I have ever seen. She invited the other Peace Corps trainees that live in town, two current volunteers an aunt and cousins. My family also gave me presents of jewelry and clothes. It was a good way to start #24!
Life in our pueblo happens in the streets. Multiple days a week the main calle is transformed into a market place-an opportunity to go shopping (for everything from mangos to industrial sized hair gel to silverware) and to meet with neighbors and friends. There’s always time to stop and talk to one more person. Houses are close to the street with little space in between neighbors, if any. Privacy seems to be a luxury that few can afford. It’s happened more than once that the volunteers who live across town from me have gone running in the morning before class, and I have found out about it from one of my family members during breakfast the same morning. Chismes (gossip) travels quickly. What is not acceptable or appropriate behavior in most families, such as drinking, spills out into the streets. There is a house close to mine that sells Guatemalan moonshine, which makes seeing men stumbling down the street or sleeping wherever they may have fallen a daily occurrence. Today there was a man close to my age passed out in the main street just outside my window for over three hours. Watching many people walk past and stare at him, I wondered how long it would take for word to get back to his family and how they would deal with the vergüenza (shame) it would bring. Sundays are a day of rest-street corners turn into meeting places and many people sit on the sidewalk just outside their doors to watch people go by and buy chicharones or french fries from the vendors that are found on nearly every block. There are very few tourists, which means whenever we walk through town, we seem to be on display. More often than not people respond to our “Buenos tardes” with kind smiles and replies; young kids often say “goodbye” as we pass or yell “gringas!” to be sure their friends see us too, and many times people call me “canche” (blonde) as they pass…almost like it’s my name. The longer I am here the less I am surprised by the variety of things I see - The other day when I was walking home two men ran past me, in a football player stance, each carrying ¼ of a butchered cow on their shoulders. How else were they supposed to deliver the meat to the butcher shop??
Poco a poco (little by little) we are learning more about why we are here, and the job we will be doing once we are sworn in is volunteers. As a part of training we are working with a group of artisans in town to help them improve their businesses. It’s difficult because often their first thought is to export to the U.S. without realizing that the increased profits they would be earning in dollars also come with increased expenses as well as complicated logistics and legal processes. We have had two group meetings with the leaders of the organization and have also met individually with some of the artisans. This week we visited a veladora and learned how to make candles, were invited to taste dulces tipicos (candied sweet potatoes and sweetened figs) and met with a woman and her daughter to see the traditional weaving products they make. As we get to know the group better, we are recognizing more immediate needs that we can help meet. This week we will be giving our first training sessions to the whole group of artisans. Our topics will be covering the basic principles of marketing and legal processes concerning businesses in Guatemala…hopefully it will be interesting for everyone and helpful as well even though it may not be exactly what they think they want or need help with.
Between language classes, learning and practicing technical skills and figuring out all of the procedural processes of the Peace Corps, there’s always something else I should be “doing”…but it really is all good information and is easily applicable to the life we will soon have as volunteers. It’s exciting to learn more about what it is I will be doing here for the next two years – the more I find out, the more I am convinced that this is where I need and want to be.
I made it! I flew to Washington DC on August 10th to meet with the rest of the group for introductions and orientation. With only a day and half in DC, the time went by quickly – after filling out paperwork, meeting the 32 other volunteers, making last minute phone calls and having a bon voyage dinner at a small Italian restaurant, it was time to go! We left our hotel at 2am on August 12th and arrived in Guatemala City (Guate) at 2pm. A group of Peace Corps staff was at the airport to greet us and help us through customs. They loaded us onto a bus and drove out of the capital to Santa Lucia Milpas Altas, a pueblo (town) where the Peace Corps has their head quarters and training site. We were introduced to the Peace Corps staff and were paired off to stay with host families for the first three nights. Amanda (who is also from CA) and I stayed with a family that lives close to the PC compound. There were three kids in the family who we spent most of our time playing with, Joseline (8), Sandy (6) and Esau (2). They enjoyed playing with our make-up, dressing up for photo shoots using our cameras and playing Go-Fish. We also went to an Evangelical church service with our host mom, Nellie, one of the nights we were there. Even though we only stayed for a couple of days, the family welcomed us into their home and made us feel comfortable despite the difficulty we had communicating as a result of our limited Spanish mixed with exhaustion and anxiety. The kids made us promise to visit when we come to town for group meetings at the PC office and sent us off with pictures they drew for us and letters signed “Dios le bendigas” (God Bless You).
There are thirty-three trainees in our group. The group will be working in two areas, Municipal Development and Sustainable Agriculture, which is the program I am in. Based on our programs and Spanish level we were split into eight groups and each group was assigned a community to live in for the next three months during training.
I am living in a small town (17,000 people) that is close to Antigua. It is a farming-based community which lies between two volcanoes, Volcan de Fuego and Volcan de Agua. Our house is on one of the main streets in town and in the front of the house is a small store that is owned by my family. I am so thankful for the family I was placed with. Don Julio, mi padre, works for Nestle and is very eager to teach and share things about Guatemalan culture. Dona Amalia, mi madre, is very hospitable and encouraging -- I am excited to be able to learn to cook and keep house like a ‘Guatamalteca’ from her. There are three daughters: Fluvia (28), Helen (25) and Xiomara (21) - all have been very welcoming and introduce me as their hermana (sister). It’s great to be around people my age that can help me learn about and understand their culture. Despite only being here for two days so far, I already feel comfortable as a part of the family and look forward to getting to know all of them well as the time goes on.
My bedroom window faces the street and is a great vantage point to understand the different aspects that make up the community in which I live. From my window I have seen a young man riding a bike while herding goats, school children in uniforms walking home, farm workers with machetes, horses bearing loads of produce from the campos (fields) and buses full of people who commute into the city for work or shopping. All of this occurs with the backdrop of Volcan de Fuego, which is often shrouded by a mist of clouds. Even when I have my curtains shut, I am learning to distinguish the activities occurring around me by the noises that are a consistent part of life in Guatemala – the roar of a speeding camioneta (chicken bus), clicking of hooves weighed down by large bushels of corn, honking and weaving of tuk-tuks (moto-taxis), the familiar songs of ice cream trucks, crowing roosters who don’t seem to mind whether the sun is rising or setting, banda music from a neighboring store, the snarling of street dogs and the indistinguishable community announcements from loud speakers mounted on trucks. The noise never seems to cease, but instead only changes, one sound leading into another. Despite being previously accustomed to living in places where peace and quiet is the norm, the noise doesn’t bother me. Maybe it’s because everything here is so new to me, and not being bothered by the noise is just one small thing to add to the list of adjustments I need make in order to live here. Or maybe it’s because I’m in a consistent state of exhaustion and despite the 4am bus routes passing by my window I am too tired to respond… time will tell :)
Most of my time so far has been taken up by meetings and classes. The training program is made up of different parts to help us integrate into our communities and prepare us for the jobs we will have once we are sworn in as volunteers. We have been introduced to cross-cultural, language, security and safety, health and technical topics and will go into more depth in all of these areas little by little, with the major focus on developing language and technical skills.
With much of my time being taken by training and my energy spent on adjusting, I have not been able to do much else. But, when I first got here on Saturday, my host sisters invited me to go with them to a concert at a Christian church. Fluvia, Helen and their cousin, Krisle, and I drove to a larger town about thirty minutes away. We got there at 2:30pm which was the scheduled time for the event to start. Around 3:30pm things began…announcements were made about the concession stands and souvenirs being sold and we were asked to look around and get something to eat and return in twenty minutes. Forty minutes later they were still doing a sound check. Again, they asked us to leave the outdoor covered stage area and get to know people around us. Around 5:00pm the pastor who was scheduled to preach before the band played arrived and things really started to get going. The pastor gave a message about leadership and was followed by a youth dance team and praise band. Just after the final announcements were being made and the band was about to come on stage -- the electricity went out. At first they thought the sanctuary inside could be used, so they broke down the stage setup and moved it inside, only to find out the electricity inside was out also. (We later found out it was a country wide problem) After an hour and a half more of waiting and watching different people try to solve the problem, they decided to reschedule the concert for the following weekend. Just as we were walking to the car, five hours after we had first arrived, the lights came back on and the show was on again! The band was a ska/punk band from Uruguay – “Alternativa”. Not at all what I expected when I was first invited to come. Though I already recognized that tranquilidad (tranquility) is a strong characteristic of Guatemala, and Central American cultures in general, I was intrigued to see it play out even in a situation like this. Coming from a culture that professes often that “time is money” and has high expectations for what is owed to individuals when they pay for a good or service, I kept imagining how differently the situation would have played out if it had happened in the U.S. People would have been annoyed and if they had waited more than an hour past the scheduled time they would probably have done so impatiently, followed by demands for refunding their tickets. It emphasized for me the difference between time oriented cultures versus event oriented cultures. I know it will be one of the many things that will not be easy to adjust to at first – but it seems like an adjustment I will be happy to make.
It’s hard to believe I have been here for not even a week. With each day being made up of so many new people, foods, things and words they all seem to run together. I am excited to see what each new day and week will bring and for a time in the future when I feel comfortable enough to call Guatemala my home.
Some of the girls hanging out in the Peace Corps courtyard
My host sisters, Joseline and Sandy, from our first weekend in Guatemala.
Amanda with our host family kids - Joseline, Sandy & Esau
A view from the PC courtyard
Me with Sandy
The girls playing dress-up on our last night staying at their house
A welcome sign from my host family who I will be staying with during the next three months of training
A presentation of a traditional Mayan dance at a local school.
Volcan Fuego - This was taken from my families home - A beautiful thing to wake up to!
Life as an Ag. volunteer... Marketing classes in the coffe field.
Steve and Shaniqua
Kiera and David, our tech trainer for Agricultural Marketing
Shiala, Annalisa and Amanda
The Agricultual Marketing group in front of the Office of Tourism, with the office staff.
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