Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Snail mail... a whole new meaning

Although I’ve written several letters (well, little cards, actually) I cannot send them to the US because, get this, Guatemala is out of stamps until next month. 

Apparently in Guatemala the government doesn’t organize the mail system, and their stamps are printed in Canada (where there is a backorder of some kind).  It’s still possible to send mail, but you have to take it to the post office itself for a stamp to be printed onto the envelope (rather than the stick on variety). 

In my community the post office open one day a week, and only on random days.  The reason: there is only one employee who does all the deliveries in Sumpango and also mans the store the other day of the week.  For me to mail anything from my community I have the option of walking by the office every day hoping someone will be there.  Since I have class during almost all office hours and I live high on a hill above the center of town, that hasn’t been a very practical option.  Of course, I’m not sure how many other communities even have their own Post Office so I can’t complain too much.

Usually we trainees could send money with a driver from PCHQ to Antigua (nearby larger town) to buy stamps to bring back but that takes us back to square one.

We’re restricted to our own communities for the first three weekends, so I am unable to get to Antigua (where the post office is presumably open on a more regular basis) to have stamps printed onto the envelopes until September.

Once I get the stamps I’m hoping I get to leave the mail at the same office, because I sure haven’t seen any friendly tamper proof blue drop boxes anywhere.

All of this is not a tale of “woe is me.”  It’s just one of many ways I’m becoming more appreciative of that unsung resource that the US is awash in; Infrastructure.  

Training, huh?

Today makes two weeks in country!  Here’s the overview:

After our first three day arrival event, we were split into groups based on both our Spanish speaking abilities and our technical program (for me, Sustainable Agriculture Food Security).  Then our groups were sprinkled out in communities within a 40 minute camioneta commute from PCHQ in Santa Lucia Milpas Altas.  Our training cycle has presented some difficulties because we didn’t cluster well with our speaking ablilites within the technical groups.  So, I find myself in a group of 8 trainees in one community split into three language levels that straddle two technical projects.  (I assume that ideally we’d have one tech group per community and one or two language levels.)

The philosophy behind the 11 weeks of training is learning by doing in a community based training (CBT) context.  I’ve now moved to my Sumpango Host Family’s home and split my time between Spanish language/Guatemalan culture classes and Technical training sessions most days (Mon, Wed, Thurs, Fri, and a half day on Sat).  My technical (Food Security) group is split between two towns, so half the group gets a ride from our trainer to the other town most days for a 2-4 hour session. 

Tuesdays are set aside for Common Sessions at PCHQ with the whole training group (all three technical groups).  These days are mainly spent on medical, safety, and general cultural adjustment sessions with a little bit of technical training thrown in.  Early on we received a mini briefcase full of medical supplies and then we tackle a different theme each week more in depth.  For example, yesterday was D Day.  Yes, that stands for Diarrhea. 

Upcoming milestones in training include:
·         Day-trip to a current volunteer’s site (tomorrow!)
·         Field Based Training week long trip to stretch our Spanish and technical wings (September)
·         Receive Site Assignment (October 14)
·         Site Visit for four nights (the following week…. Also hopefully moving into my site at least halfway)
·         Swearing in as a real Peace Corps Volunteer (October 29)

In between all these events I’ll be giving many practice presentations (one in English, the rest in Spanish) known as charlas (or chats).  Along the way the staff will evaluate/observe us to get to know us (our skills, interests, strengths) and match us with our sites for the following two years.  In Sustainable Agriculture there are 17 trainees and 30 sites who requested us, so hopefully that leaves them enough flexibility to avoid serious mismatches. 

All in all, I feel I’m in good hands those training me and placing me.  The one thing I’m antsy for is learning a Mayan language (which will very likely be the dominant language in my site).  But, since my site is still TBD I don’t know which language to start learning!  Ah well, patience, patience, patience.  That’s going to have to become my middle name.

Friday, August 20, 2010

First Night on the Town

On my third night in Guatemala, my Santa Lucia (first) host mother decided to take my fellow PCT and me to a 15th birthday party for the daughter of a childhood friend. 

For those unfamiliar, this is a bit like sweet 16 or a debutante party big in many parts of Latin America, with the Quincieñera birthday girl as the star of the show.  There had been lively discussion over whether we would be allowed to go at all, because we are supposed to be home before dark every night for safety purposes.  While that’s somewhat flexible if you are out with your family, in this case we were going to a neighboring town meaning we would be traveling by camioneta (aka Chicken Bus).  Having had strict instructions from the Training Director to be home before 7 pm, we double and triple checked with our host mom that we would be home on time.  She assured us we would, as it wouldn’t be good for her to travel after dark anyway, and that yes, we’d be home before the buses stopped running and before it was dark.


The event started with a Mass at 4:00 that we missed because we were still in class, so we went straight to the reception/party portion at a local municipal building, arriving around 5:45  (45 minutes late, according to the invitation) after a quick pass through the outdoor market to pick up a gift. 

The room was filled with about 40 round tables with white tablecloths and 9” tall plastic princess figurines in blue ribbon covered wire hoops that were suspended at eye level when seated.  The birthday girl’s name and the phrase “a dream made reality” (translated) were suspended over the cake table in large blue sparkly Styrofoam block letters.  There were towers of white cakes below with blue frosting flowers surrounded by another dozen or so of the plastic princess figurines.  These ones had batteries inside them that made a heart shape on the skirt glow in ever changing colors.  The table was a huge Lazy Susan, making a spinning sculpture of confections with glowing princess dolls.  There were waiters putting out the last of the goblets with white cloth napkins folded inside them, a screen for live and prerecorded videos, two walls of speakers playing very loud music, a DJ, and a blue oddly sized swing set with one basket shaped swing on it. 

In conspicuous absence was the birthday girl, most of her family, and guests to fill the 80% empty seats.

So, we sat with our host mother around a table, mainly silently due to the music already playing.  During the next hour the music gained volume steadily until I wished for the earplugs that had been on the packing list a former Volunteer sent me.  The music itself consisted mainly of American pop music that had a saxophone playing the melody in place of a singer.  I thought it odd when, “It Must Have Been Love (But it’s Over Now),” came on but figured it’s peppy enough if you don’t know the lyrics are about heartbreak.  What really got me was when they played Phil Collins’ song, “Another Day in Paradise,” in the midst of all the extravagance.  Odds are none of the people present knew the original,  so I suppose it was my own personal dish of irony.

As the clocked neared 7:00 my friend and I considered worrying but decided against it just because the situation was out of our hands anyway.   We were hungry and thirsty, she had a headache, and we had lost hope of making it home by dark since darkness was actually imminent and there was still little evidence that the party would begin any time soon, nor that our host mother had the slightest inclination to leave.

Luckily, the actual event got going pretty soon after 7 (guests had finally started filling the room around 6:30).  It began with a procession of that looked like every younger cousin the Quinciñera had in blue dresses and suits, followed by the girl of the hour in a blue ball gown accompanied by her grandparents, while her parents waited tearfully at the swing set.  There were many hugs and tears, followed by a series of symbolic first and lasts.  This began with the birthday girl “breaking” her “last” piñata (oddly enough, shaped to look just like her), swinging on a swing for the “last” time, and getting her “first” shot at wearing makeup and high heels.  Of course, the next item was a slide show of her childhood which had plenty of beauty pageant and dance competitions that showed plenty of makeup- and heel-wearing in her past.  Then there was a series of dances including father/daughter, mother/daughter, grandfather/daughter, grandmother/daughter, and daughter/boyfriend pairings.

At this point (which felt like “at last” to me) there was a full sit down dinner for everyone with champagne, beef, rice, potato salad, rice, and rolls.  Next there was the ceremonial gift delivery after which point our host mother agreed to take us home.  I wouldn’t have been so antsy except that my friend was feeling more and more sick, both feverish and nauseous.  We walked a bit to grab a taxi, and made it home without incident (although we did pass a landslide area that took over one of the lanes on the road.

The whole experience was fascinating on several levels and I was thrilled to get to observe the event!  Hopefully I’ll get to attend another later on to see how these events vary from place to place and family to family.  I was frustrated we didn’t have more options when my friend was feeling so ill, but I’ll chalk that up to a lesson in direct/indirect communication styles (especially now that she’s fully recovered).  Also, if that’s a birthday party, I can’t wait to attend a wedding!

Safe Arrival

My trip to Guatemala was by way of Staging in DC.  Staging included filling out one last set of paperwork that officially changed me from a Peace Corps Invitee to a Peace Corps Trainee (PCT).  We also got a small start on learning each other’s names and had a little reflection on what brought us to this point. 

On the 11th I was up at 3:00 a.m. to check out of the hotel and be on the bus by 4:00, getting us safely to the airport a full four hours before our flight.  PC believes in being prepared, folks.  After attempting some naps in the airport, I pulled out of grogginess long enough to notice the sun was coming up (below).

We made it to Guatemala without incident having gained several new friends sitting near us in airports and on airplanes, all of whom wished us well and a few of whom actually served in PC years ago.  After a surprisingly simple pass through customs (having already been met by PC Guate folks, thank goodness!), we headed to Santa Lucia Milpas Altas, where PC Guate has its compound (PCHQ hereafter). 

Peace Corps immediately set about imparting paranoia for our own good.  Knowing we were exhausted, they gave us just a few tips before sending us to our first host family, who had us for the first three nights only (during the Welcome Event, before they figure out where our Spanish skills were and sent us out to our training communities).  So, if you find yourself dazed and confused in Guatemala, here’s what you need to know to not screw up too much the first few nights:  Don’t eat the street food, don’t drink the water, don’t put the TP in the toilet, and don’t go out after dark.  With that, I headed out to my first family with another PCT for company.  We had dinner and promptly crashed into our beds.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Monday, August 2, 2010


-noun.  (family slang)
abbr. Fear of Missing Out

The condition or syndrome in which the sufferer is seized by dread at the prospect that something exciting, enjoyable, important, or simply unrepeatable (read; anything of interest at all) might happen in her or his absence.  This can lead to paralysis during a decision making process, decreased enjoyment of whatever the patient is actually doing (due to chronic worry or attention to distant events), or choosing to do things against one's own inclination to ensure nothing happens without the sufferer's knowledge (i.e. staying awake far past feeling wakeful and cheerful simply because others are still awake and talking).

I think of FOMO sort of like the common cold.  Sometimes it lingers like a cough that just won't leave: it saps the enjoyment of a choice long after the action is taken and it's too late to go back, leaving the sufferer with regrets or at least pangs of what might have been.  Sometimes a quick bout is all there is, like a sore throat that never really turns into anything worth staying home from school or work over.  In those cases, I find a momentary pause before a decision, but never look back once launching.  In many cases, I find myself caught in paralysis by analysis, gripped by FOMO, unwilling to make any choice for fear the other would have been better.  I manage to make the choice eventually (perhaps painfully slowly to many outside observers), and generally have no long lasting ill effects.

I used to think FOMO was a common disease that struck all people.  I supposed some people came down with FOMO more often than others, but pretty much everyone got hit with it on occasion.  While this may still be true, I definitely have a predisposition to it; whether of genetic or environmental origin I do not know.  In recent years I have encountered several friends who look at me blankly when I try to describe my symptoms. They say, "just do what you want to do," or, "whatever choice you make is the right one, because that's the one you live," or, "follow your heart."  Turns out, some people have immunity to FOMO.  Because for me, it's a matter of wanting to have both choices.  It's also a matter of wanting to make the right choice.  My heart becomes hard to follow because it is so eager to experience it all that it is stretching in all directions attempting to not miss a thing.

During the (long, long) process of applying for the Peace Corps and deciding whether it was a good mutual fit, I was seized by FOMO on and off.  Once I accepted my invitation to Guatemala, I definitely had a spell where I was so concerned with all that would happen in the US while I am gone that I had a hard time seeing the exciting things that I will get to experience while I'm gone.  Things that my friends in family in the US will miss out on (childish inner voice says, "so there!").  Now I am set to get on the plane to start my adventure a week from today.  I am still feeling a little torn; I will miss at least five weddings of close friends this fall.  But mainly, I am feeling like it's time to set sail.  

Once I get through all my packing and errands, that is.  *gulp*