Monday, March 12, 2012

Mi Madre [Guest Blog]

I was fortunate enough to have my family come to visit in February for a precious 9 days so I could share a quick taste of what my life has been like here in Guatemala before I head out at the end of March. Below are some reflections written by my mother.


Guatemala is a land of contrasts. The landscape and culture is like an ancient and expertly woven fabric, its drapes and design shaped by volcanoes, water, wind, sea, and her Mayan people. Earth tones prevail: terra cotta reds, sage and forest greens, dusty browns, sky blue, leaden gray. The texture of the weave is deeply carved with steep slopes, high ridges, eroded valleys, and sink holes. The threads of water are precious, even though it falls copiously from the skies in season. There are places where newer threads intersect the old... paved highways that are frayed by mudslides; cell phone towers that rise in spires above the coffee and cardamom groves; glistening plastic litter strewn along the highways. It is as if someone took a look at the ancient weaving and decided to repair the worn spots by stitching in sequins, baubles, and twist ties.

This was most apparent to me as we sat in the main room of our host's house, a room of wooden planking which measured about 12 X 12. The room had two sources of light: the open doorway and a bare incandescent bulb flickering yellow with the fluctuations in power. No windows. Overhead the corrugated tin roof protected us and the family's corn supply from threatening rain, and diverted the water into a plastic lined catchment since no running water is available for miles. A duck was brooding her eggs in one corner of the earthen floored room, while a lame chicken pecked beneath my plastic chair. The three children sat coloring on paper my daughter provided or climbed onto our laps for a game of horsey rides. Meanwhile, our hostess used a rectangular grinding stone and cylindrical pestle carved from volcanic rock to mash the prepared corn into the dough for the fresh tortillas she would cook for us on the wood stove. We sat at a bare, plank table, while she worked at another, methodically grinding the masa, scooping it up, shaping it into tortillas, and deftly depositing them directly onto the hot stove surface. We spoke quietly in English punctuated by exchanges in Q'eqchi' between my daughter and the host family. Suddenly a chirping noise broke the pattering rhythm of the tortilla making, and our hostess turned to a makeshift shelf nailed to the wooden wall by her work table and answered her cell phone. A land of contrasts indeed.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Semuc Champey

In mid-February my site mate and I met up with some other PCVs from our training class and high tailed it to Semuc Champey in Alta Verapaz near Lanquin. We took a fantastic tour both walking and swimming through caves carrying our own candles along for light, and then enjoyed the afternoon above ground admiring the scenery and pools.

It was a beautiful place and I´m only sorry I only got to go once. I´ve already added it to my list of places to return to on my next trip to Guatemala.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Charting a New Course

"You need a plan ... but don't become consumed by it. Winds change."
  -- Joseph Ehrhard 

In mid-January I was in planning mode. I met with the school director in my village to plan for the start of the school year. I outlined my six month plan to cover nutrition with my women's groups. I was anticipating the changeover of half the board of directors in the cooperative, hopefully providing an opening to work with the Agriculture Committee. I was contemplating starting a weekly Junior Master Gardener group and a GLOW camp (Girls Leading Our World) for Holy Week. I was plotting how to best use the rest of my vacation time.

As often seems to be the case in life, and in the Peace Corps in particular, events have torn my best laid plans to shreds. 

The Powers That Be came to Peace Corps Guatemala. After an urgent text message and email, volunteers from all over Guatemala assembled at an All Volunteer Conference in Quetzaltenango (aka Xela) in what felt like a tortuously slow motion scramble. 

Representatives from the national Peace Corps office in DC came and explained in compelling detail that crime and safety are of serious concern in the Northern Triangle of Central America, which has been called the "deadliest non-war zone in the world" (Christian Science Monitor). Surveys of Peace Corps Volunteers in Guatemala show disturbing trends in volunteers' sense of safety and rates of being a victim to crime. They explained that Congress was asking the Peace Corps pretty pointedly, "What are you doing in Central America?" 

We learned that PC Guatemala is not going to be shut down, but that major changes are on the horizon to manage risk here. The number of volunteers in Guatemala must be reduced drastically and immediately. Those scheduled to leave in March will leave in February. Those scheduled to leave in July will leave in March. Everyone in the country may take an early Close of Service should they choose to do so. The remaining volunteers in country will be condensed into the Central Western Highlands.

Since I live in Alta Verapaz (not in the Central Western Highlands), I was given the choice to either take the early COS or take a site change. Again.

At first the hardest thing to swallow was that I was among the volunteers who had to move. Sure, Guatemala is dangerous. Sure, the murder rate is startlingly high and the impunity from prosecution is sickening. But I feel safe in my site. Everyone knows me. It's a tiny place. I rarely leave my village, and when I do I have access to tourism shuttles and relatively safe bus lines. I spent several days in denial, mentally bargaining for an exception. Surely I could stay here to finish out my service. It took a sympathetic but firm response from my Country Director before I accepted that there was no Option C. I had to choose between going home and going to a new community within Guatemala.

I chose the Peace Corps as my means of volunteering abroad for many reasons, but a huge one was that it allowed me to spend two full years in a community. I felt that in sustainable development, it was important to commit to being somewhere long enough to really know the people, recognize the needs, and take the time to do things well. Having already taken a site change when my initial site placement did not pan out, another would mean my 27 months would end up being 3 months of training, seven months in Solola, ten months in Alta Verapaz, and then seven more months in an unknown location. That sounded exhausting, ineffective, and frustrating.

Yet, I didn't immediately close that door. I wanted to know what the site change might mean. I thought maybe I could be placed somewhere a little more like a job than the usual Peace Corps location. Maybe I could work with an international organization that already had a program in place and just needed help carrying it out. Perhaps I could spend the rest of my service solidifying my Spanish skills and getting a new flavor of work experience.

Once I got back to site, I tried to imagine a new path for myself in Guatemala. I couldn't muster much excitement for it. Going to a new site would overshadow the rest of my time in Alta and likely mean leaving my current site sooner than a COS would. Site development is a complex process even when not rushed, and there was no guaruntee of being sent somewhere I could hit the ground running, or even walking. Going to a site focused on something specific I wanted to get out of the experience rather than on what I could learn and then contribute seemed like a recipe for disappointment. It also runs contradictory to my approach to Peace Corps. A site change felt like a big gamble, but somehow I kept trying to talk myself into taking it. Somehow because I was more apprehensive about staying in Guatemala than going back to the US it felt like that was the bolder, better, or braver choice. Mostly I couldn't let go of my plan of serving my 27 months and finishing out with the rest of my training group.

I realized that what was holding me here was pretty much pure stubbornness, and that made the decision. On February 1, I called my program director and told him I am heading to the States at the end of March. Time to close out this life chapter as best I can and to look inside for what I will bring to the next.