Tuesday, September 28, 2010

FBT: Jalapa

Last week I went east to the department of Jalapa for Field Based Training with the other seven Food Security PCTs.  We used Mataquesquintla (a town nicknamed Coliz, oddly enough) as home base and headed out to a variety of surrounding aldeas (villages) during the days to get a taste of what some real current FS PCV sites look like.  Highlights follow.

Sunday:  We took a half day road trip starring a food court in Guatemala City that included standards from home like Subway and Burger King.  This started the week long trend of being bottomless pits meant to absorb any food in sight.

Monday:  Chicken vaccinations in San Antonio Las Flores by morning, touring a Coffee Co-op in Los Magueyes for the afternoon.  It turns out injections with a syringe are much less emotionally scarring than stabbing a chicken in the wing with a lancet.  The Coffee folks had a truly impressive worm compost system, but I was less enamored of the actual coffee (not that I know coffee quality anyway).

Tuesday:  I came down with a fever on Monday night that plagued me all day Tuesday, leaving me less than peppy.  We observed a cheese making process at the lecheria (diary) in Soledad Grande, had a devastatingly good lunch at the local PCV’s host family’s house, and toured some family gardens she has helped start.  Even though I was under the weather, this site appealed to me way more than Monday’s did.  Something about being high in the mountains just always makes me happy.

Wednesday:  We spent the morning in Pino Dulce making lunch with a women’s group who works with our PCV guide.  Since my portion of the meal needed to boil awhile, I also got to bond with the kids of the household, playing some a nameless game similar to Duck Duck Goose.  The afternoon was a quick stop by a school garden for another example of current projects, and then we returned to the hotel to prep our charlas for Tuesday (chats or workshops).

Thursday:  Charla day.  All eight of us had 30 minute presentations to give, which made for a long day.  The morning group was a cluster of women in San Supo who were eager to participate and pretty savvy to the topics.  For the afternoon we went to Pino Dulce’s ecological park where I gave my charla on soil conservation to a very shy group of young men that are employees at the park.  They enjoyed my “Lluvias de cambio” / “Rains of change” game (that’s Winds of Change to you, FLBC-ers), but were stone cold when I asked for questions or comments.  Ah well, the people evaluating me seemed to think it went okay.  We spent the evening around a campfire playing a marathon series of Mafia games (cards) and slept in a cabin perched on the edge of a steep mountainside.

Friday:  After breakfast we had a class on soil conservation methods that was both theoretical and practical, which actually reinforced my own talk from the previous day pretty well.  We hiked down a steep valley and constructed some A-frame levels, drainage ditches, and discussed terracing.  After a humbling (gasping and wheezing at 8,000 feet) climb back up to the park entrance, we had a delicious lunch and jumped into the vans for Sacatepequez (our department during training). 

We returned a day early due to Tropical Storm Matthew heading our way, but I was tired enough to get over my disappointment at missing out on zip lining fairly quickly.  Plus, we got to stop at Wendy’s and buy a Frosty on the way home.  It’s funny how I love American fast food here, but never ate it while I was home.  Go figure. 

Soul Matters

In Guatemala the vast majority of people are Christian, with a split between Catholics (numerical majority) and Evangelical (a very vocal minority). My host family is Evangelical, and I’ve attended several church services with them so far. I assume that an Evangelical service in the US would feel like a cross-cultural experience to me as well, but going as a middling-tall blonde-ish woman to a Guatemalan Evangelical church service… makes me increasingly aware of my outsider status with every attendance.

The first time I went, I was initially pleased at how well I was able to follow the lyrics of the first hymn. Admittedly, the lyrics had about as much variation as “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” and lasted for nearly 10 minutes so this wasn’t any great feat (I started timing later… 6-10 minutes per song is normal). When that song blended seamlessly into the next song without breaking for breath (much less directing the congregation to a page in the non-existent hymnals), I settled in for what appeared to be a combination between a sing-a-long praise band concert and an aerobics class. After an hour of waving religiously themed flags and clapping to variations on an oom-pah-pah sort of rhythm from the band/choir up front, we sat down as the praise leader gave the pulpit over to the pastor.

My first Guatemalan sermon was an hour long combination between fire and brimstone and stand-up comedy. The contents included familiar parables (“the kingdom of heaven is like ___________”), commentary on abortion (apparently connected to being blonde/blue eyed or not… I didn’t quite follow but was definitely the only blue-eyed person in attendance), the concepts of being rich and poor in both worldly and spiritual ways, criticism of science, a discussion of the possibility of whether aliens are real, and more. The pastor was using a microphone but seemed to forget that his voice was already amplified, because he tends to shout for emphasis. The church building is an empty storeroom and is honestly not that large of a space. It probably doesn’t need microphones at all, and the acoustics are such that I seriously considered bringing ear plugs to my next service. I decided against it out of cultural sensitivity, but my host sister went out and bought cotton for her own ears the next week, so I may be justified in doing it for the future.

After the sermon we had another hour of intensely happy singing and dancing with a minor interlude that seemed like the Prayers of the People. During this time the congregation flipped a switch from being intensely and demonstratively happy to audibly moaning and crying. There was no worship attendant praying on behalf of the congregation; rather each person prayed aloud at once, leaving me unable to decipher the prayers at all. To wrap it up there was an altar call made for anyone moved to accept Jesus into their heart. The Offering and Passing of the Peace happened simultaneously, and there wasn’t any Communion at all (although maybe that happens on a schedule I’m unaware of). We switched over to announcements to wrap things up, which included exhortations to go out to the community with a will to invite/convert our neighbors.

Once the service wound down (3 hours in at this point) we had what Lutherans usually refer to as “Coffee Hour,” in this case starring tostadas and atol. Many adults in the congregation come up to welcome me and ask my host mother if I speak Spanish. The children came to me more directly and dissolved into giggles every time I asked them a question. After a full four hours there, we walked home across town in the dark as a family.

With each return trip, the congregation warms to me. In the case of the children this makes me feel more welcome, but in the case of the adults it may have the opposite of the desired effect.

My second trip to church ended with an intense game of cops and robbers with the kids as well as a highly disorganized soccer game that ended near midnight. The adults of the congregation greet me excitedly and always exhort me to come again for all three church services each week (so far I’m averaging just less than one service a week, much to their disappointment). After each service I have the same three young men in the congregation that approach me individually and ask me the same questions that lead me to think they want (a) to save my soul, (b) to date me, or (c) both. Last time I went to church the pastor called me out by name three separate times during the sermon, including commentary on my height and coloring.

I’m mostly entertained by all of this, but at the same time I’m not exactly dying to be in the spotlight so I was glad that my Field Based Training trip spared me returning very quickly.

All in all these experiences have impressed me with the fervor and faith that everyone in attendance exhibits. While it’s not my style of religion (and it’s a pretty big time commitment) I have found going to church has helped me meet people and be accepted into Sumpango. I see some of the children elsewhere in town and they are thrilled to see me. I will have to think about how to navigate church going as I head out to my assigned site in another month or so… I want to integrate into the community, but I don’t want to commit 12 hours a week to a religious expression that doesn’t line up with my own style and that may make the quieter Catholics in town feel slighted.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Quick disclaimer: I don’t intend to offend with my description of religion here in Guatemala. I challenge you to look around at your own religious practices (should you have any) and think about it from an outsider’s perspective. Many rituals are faintly funny or at least confusing for those not within that faith tradition.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Trimet, it’s not

Having spent the years between graduating college and entering the Peace Corps in Portland without a car, I’ve been pretty accustomed to public transportation.  In PC Guate we’re not allowed to operate motor vehicles, so for the next two years I’ll still be relying on public transport, hitching rides, or transportation under my own steam.  So in some ways I was well prepared for this.  In other ways….. well, see what you think of my comparisons.  Here it is: Trimet Bus vs. Chicken Bus (Camioneta) 


Portland:  Trimet is a publically subsidized company that is a single, large corporation.  Every Trimet bus is maintained the same way, the drivers are trained the same way, and routes/policies/prices are clearly published and disseminated by the central administration that creates them.  

Guatemala:  The buses themselves are reclaimed Blue Bird school buses that have been retired from transporting US students and are now in various states of disrepair careening around the highways of Central America.  There are several private bus companies (and perhaps several independent contractors) designated by the color scheme and paint pattern on each bus.  Sometimes the buses are in competition, so two buses that travel the same route will come screaming into a stop together, fighting for passengers.  They take off just as quickly (occasionally with passengers jumping on while in motion) rushing to win the race to the next stop.  I have no idea if the bus drivers are trained at all, and while routes and prices seem to be fairly consistent, they may be changed at the whim of the operator.  Forget about policies. 

Route information
Portland:  Trimet has a map with route information for several buses at many bus stop shelters.  Each bus line is numbered, as is each bus stop.  The website generates travel itineraries accurate down to the minute for boarding times (admittedly the actual bus often doesn’t get there on time).  There is also a live-updated website, a phone hotline, and a phone app giving transit tracker arrival times and updates to route changes or delays.  Buses pass at designated time intervals, from every 15 minutes to every hour, depending on location and time of day. 

Guatemala:  Forget the technology.  Buses have a list of places they stop painted above their windshield and the ayudante hangs out the door as they pull up rattling off a list of destinations like an auctioneer.  Bus stops aren’t generally marked.  It’s best not to ask neighbors at the bus stop how to get anywhere or how much any fare costs since that invites pick-pocketing or misinformation for crimes of convenience.  Try to determine where you are going, how to get there, and how much it costs before making it to the bus stop.  This isn’t published anywhere, so try to find a local you trust who is familiar with the route you need.  Buses pass constantly (every 5 minutes or less) along the Pan American highway, but without scheduled times.  In more remote parts of the country they may pass every hour, but you won’t find anyone telling you to board Bus 12 at Stop 2840 at 5:07 p.m. 


Portland:  Trimet riders may buy long term bus passes, single use tickets, or pay with exact change in cash.  They show the driver their pass or slip their ticket/money into a money machine upon boarding the bus.  If they pay with a larger bill, no change is given.  Passengers receive a transfer stub as their receipt, so if they need to they can board another bus within a designated time window.  Occasionally the money machine breaks, causing free rides for anyone who boards before a Trimet agent is able to come out to the bus to fix the jam.

Guatemala:  Passengers board and settle in immediately.  After the bus is moving an Ayudante (“helper” who functions like the conductor on a train) weaves his way back through the bus collecting fare from each new arrival, with the fare varying based on where a person got on and what their destination is.  He remembers who has already paid and who has not, what the price is for each distance, and when people should get down.  Sometimes we run into Gringo price inflation… one friend of mine what charged 8Q for a 3Q distance.  Like in Portland, it’s best to have exact change, because a bigger bill may just get absorbed by the ayudante, even if he does have change.  There are no free rides.  There are no transfers between buses.  

Capacity and Comfort
Portland:  Buses are often at about 20% capacity during the day, but are well used and “full” by American standards during rush hour.  When there are fewer people than seats, everyone leaves buffer seats between themselves and their neighbor.  Generally, people space themselves out in an equidistant pattern within the bus and the front of the bus is often left open for the elderly or physically handicapped.  Buses “kneel” down to make the step into the bus less high, and have ramps or lifts to allow for wheelchairs.  In cases where each seat is full, people stand in the aisles as close as necessary, generally leaving a small buffer of air between each other, no matter how full the bus gets.  Any physical contact is immediately followed by, “Excuse me,” or “I’m sorry,” or, “Pardon me.”  There is never more than one person per seat unless one of those people is in diapers on her parent’s lap.  In the summer there is air conditioning, in the winter there is heat (although the rain makes it more of a sauna feeling). 

Guatemala:  Buses vary between “mostly full” and “over flowing.”  An ayudante doesn’t turn down a passenger unless there are passengers on the steps with their backpack out the door and he is hanging onto the side of a bus with his arms through the window and his foot in the door to the gas tank.  There are always three adults per seat (designed for two children) leaving the person closest to the aisle with between one half cheek and one and a half cheeks on the seat.  With luck the person across the aisle is hanging off just enough you can wedge against one another for stability.  There are often also people standing in the aisles, which are generally wide enough for one leg to fit but not two, leaving people striking interesting yoga like poses to remain upright.  Every camioneta ride all but guaruntees full body contact with at least on neighbor. The ayudante must be nimble enough to navigate his way to the back of the bus through the crush of people after each group of people the boards to collect the fare.  I haven’t seen any accommodations for the elderly or handicapped, but given the opportunity people often leave space toward the front in case the driver gets robbed by gang members (not something I’ve seen or experienced yet).   Women carry cash in their bras without exception, valuable belongings are left home, and everyone’s backpack and purse is clutched close in defense against pick pocketing.  There is no AC or heating, but there is often some reggatón music playing to enliven the atmosphere.

Overall, I find the transportation system here is relatively reliable and cheap.  I run into delays just as much as I did in Portland, but they are due to overcrowded buses, not the lack of buses.  I confess that bus rides are my biggest anxiety in Guatemala, as the drivers go careening around corners in a way I’m convinced will capsize one day.  Since there are many bus companies and drivers, you never know whether the bus you board will flirt with the fringes of physics or merely speed at an alarming rate.  I also have a compulsion to use hand sanitizer within 30 seconds of getting off chicken buses (although let’s be honest, maybe I should have been more aware of that on Trimet as well).  For now I’ve always got another PCT on the bus with me, so we get into the sense of adventure together.  Once I’m at my site I’ll probably be rural enough that microbuses (mini vans) are more common than camionetas and I’ll just have the occasional stomach clenching ride into the nearest big city for supply runs.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Familia Sumpanguera

My host family is fantastic, and fascinating.  I live in a home with three generations under (more or less) one roof.  We live behind a lamina (corrugated metal) fence lined with barbed wire that opens into a courtyard lined with small trees and usually filled with some combination of free range turkeys and chickens, and laundry in varying states of wetness and dryness.  We also have two cats and a dog that roam the area, and several poultry hutches which house the three dozen or so birds.  The area is partially paved to make a patio-ish area, and the rest is mud most of the time, with a slick film of moss on top making things a bit hairy if I’m moving too quickly or wearing professional wear shoes. 

Also in the courtyard is an out building that houses a kitchen where Abuela (my Sumpango grandmother – my host mother’s 85-year-old mother) spends most of each day.  She has a wood fired stove in there where the tortilla-making magic happens, as well as loads of fire-wood, and who knows what else.  Right now she’s also got one of our cats in a box with her three new kittens (born Sept 3).  She kept that little event under wraps for three days without the rest of us being the wiser.  Tortillas, poultry, and washing dishes seem to be her domain.  She’s also a sweet dear who is very welcoming to all visitors and likes watching Fear Factor with her grandkids. 

My host father (Sumpango padre) is a teacher in the morning and a director of a different school in the afternoons.  He speaks Spanish as well as two Mayan languages (one of which he teaches on Saturdays), and is also on a council at their Evangelical church (where he attends worship three times a week).  His life story is fascinating (including several significant shifts in areas of politics, religion, and career), and he is driven by a strong sense of social justice.  I’ve definitely had to consciously pick my jaw up off the table at lunch a few times as he casually mentions events he’s lived through and people he’s met that seem out of an historical fiction novel about a composite character borrowing from several real people’s lives.

The engine of the household is my Sumpango madre, who seems to be the first awake and the last to bed every night.  She prepares several rounds of each meal of the day from scratch, based on the schedule of her husband, each of her children, and yours truly.  The house is swept, mopped, and disinfected far more frequently than I’ve ever managed to do with all my high tech gadgets in the US and she strategically scrubs through laundry based on the whims of the weather.  In the midst of all this she also has a small business out of the household selling perfumes and cleaning products to clients (a la Avon or Mary Kaye).  To top it off she volunteers with a women’s cooperative in town that tackles development projects, such as replacing open fire cooking with efficient (and far more hygienic) enclosed wood fired stoves.  This woman has a smile for everyone and the phrase I hear her use most often is (translated), “There is a solution for everything.”

The four children are 15, 12, 10, and 6 years old, with a girl second in line.  The eldest travels to a neighboring town for school, with an eye to medical school for university, and my host sister wants to be a veterinarian.  The next apparently wanted to work in construction and his parents quickly worked to channel that aspiration toward engineering (as my madre explained, they don’t have land to leave their children, so they are giving them the gift of education).  I haven’t asked the 6 year old about his ambitions yet, but he seems to enjoy playing Bananagrams and either tossing a balloon endlessly in the air or stomping on it with glee.  The younger two are quick to invite me into games and eager to explain things to me when my never-gonna-play-poker face gives away my utter confusion. 

This is a family who likes to laugh and play.  They are very Evangelical Christian, but they never pray before meals.  They have indigenous roots, but none of the children wear traje (traditional dress).  They are educated and savvy, but also steeped in their cultural notions of priorities, family roles, and wellness that may or may not seem logical from an outsider’s view.  They have welcomed me with open arms, and let me have my space and privacy too.  I learn from them every day without fail, and feel spoiled absolutely rotten that this is where I’ve landed.