Monday, November 21, 2011

It’s All Q’eqchi’ To Me

I have now been struggling to learn a Mayan language for a year. Admittedly, I spent five or six months working on K’iche’ and then in June switched over to Q’eqchi’. Moving from one language to the other felt how I imagine it would be to switch from Spanish to Portuguese after taking only one semester. The pronunciation is mostly (but not wholly) the same, the grammar is similar, and there are just enough vocabulary words that are the same to keep you confused. My first teacher had almost no experience teaching K’iche’ and so was long on patience but short on structure; my current teacher has been teaching Q’eqchi’ for over a decade and is long on structure but somewhat set in her ways. My class sessions are dominated by me filling my notebook with dictations from my teacher on vocabulary and grammar, but very little verbal practice. Still, living in the community gives me opportunity for practice and most of the fault for my slow progress is my own lack of discipline to study.

In the beginning, the most difficult thing for me was learning to distinguish between different consonant sounds, and to then be able to make them accurately. In Q’eqchi there are six different letters that can make a sound like a “k” to the untrained ear.
  • Q – Sounds like you’re clearing your throat
  • Q’ – A click in the back of the throat
  • K – Sounds like a normal English “ck”
  • K’ – A forceful sound off the roof of the mouth
  • Y – Depending on where in a word it is, it may sound like the “cu” in “cue” followed by other vowels, or it may act like a normal “y”.
  • W – Depending on where in a word it is and its relation to vowels, it may sound soft like the “w” in “bower” or it may sound like the “coo” in “cool”.

The next hurdle was vocabulary. As with the classic example of the many names for different types of snow in the Inuit language, I have found that there are many distinctions between types, stage of development, and preparations of corn that I never would have considered creating a new word for before. Likewise there are different verbs for “to carry” based on if it is done in the arms, on the back, on top of the head, or on the shoulders.

One of the areas I’ve mostly given up on is the myriad of terms for people in the family. For one thing, people usually don’t introduce themselves to me with any explanation for how they are related to anyone else, so I don’t hear the words used much. For another, it’s just confusing. In the US relationship titles are usually determined by the gender of the person spoken about (a female child is a daughter of her parent; a male child is a son of his parent, although cousin is gender neutral). In Q’eqchi’, relationship titles vary by the gender of both the speaker and the person spoken of (a female child is a ko’ to her mother, but a rabin to her father; a male child is a yum to his mother, but a alal to his father). In the case of siblings, titles vary by the gender of the speaker, gender of the subject and the age relation between the two. Thus, a girl’s older sister is chaq’na’ but her younger sister is iitz’inixq, while her older brother is as but her younger brother is iitz’inwinq. On the other hand, a boy’s older brother is as but his younger brother is iitz’in, and a boy’s older sister is anab’ but his younger sister is ch’ina anab’

There is also the inverse problem in which words I consider vitally different are lumped into one term in Q’eqchi’. For example, one verb, wank means to live, to have, and to be. You have to figure out which one is being used through context. More frustratingly, ajok means both to want and to need. Thus, I have no way of explaining, “I want to eat another cookie, but I don’t need to, so I won’t.” Nor, on a cold morning, can I complain, “I need to take a bucket bath, but I don’t want to.” I mean, really, how do you raise a child to understand the difference between wants and needs if there isn’t a distinction between the two in your language? 

For all my griping, I do like learning Q’eqchi'. I signed up for this, after all. I savor the little victories of making it through small talk when I meet a woman I know on the road. I like breaking out a new set of vocabulary words with my host family and seeing them exchange glances. “She finally learned ‘slow’ and ‘fast’!” their looks seem to say. When I can more or less follow where we are on the agenda in meetings, or I get the gist of what the people next to me in the microbus are saying, I congratulate myself. It’s been more than ten years since I was at this beginning stage with Spanish, so it took a bit to resign myself to being a true beginner again. Now that I can explain my travel plans to my host mother and set up a play date with my host siblings, I think I’m almost ready to graduate back out of beginner status. 

Monday, November 14, 2011

Commute [Small Blessings]

I settle into the first bench seat in my microbus between women, children, and baskets.  We jolt and jostle along the slickery rocks and greasy mud, stopping every so often to pick up additional passengers eager to escape the misting drizzle.

We turn onto the highway and pick up speed on the smooth pavement.  The gangly driver unrolls his window halfway, leans forward, snakes a long arm out the crack, and scrapes at the water-beaded glass before his face with a dismembered windshield wiper.  He reverses the process, guiding the window back up with help from his other hand to keep it in its track.  Perhaps twenty seconds later, he repeats the performance.  I quietly breathe the rhythm of a chuckle.  The woman next to me smiles.  The driver allows himself a wry acknowledgement, and soon all eight of us crammed in the front two rows are giggling. 

And so, merrily we barrel down the winding road, thankful it is merely sprinkling.

Monday, October 31, 2011

This Day in History

One year ago today, I got up at 5 in Sumpango, stuffed my cat in a tote bag, and stood in the back of  a packed bus for over three hours with my training host parents as they accompanied me over the crazily curving roads to my site in Sololá. I had just recovered from a violent food-borne illness, and was both eager and anxious to start the chapter of Peace Corps Volunteer as I left behind my status as a Peace Corps Trainee. 

Since then I have lived in four different housing situations with two additional host families in two departments and have spent over 150 hours studying two different Mayan languages.  I have worked in a school, a health post, in homes, kitchens, gardens, and a cooperative.  I have been in turns lonely, bored, eager, cynical, frightened, euphoric, determined, content, pessimistic, apathetic, inspired, and a host of other states of being.  I have improved my tortilla-making skills, my cockroach killing techniques, and my ability to endure being the center of attention.  I have made new friends in my Guatemalan communities, have strengthened Volunteer friendships, and been incredibly supported by friends and family from home through calls, cards, and even some visitors.

It is staggering to know that I have [only / a whole] year left.  
What the next year of service holds, I won’t pretend to guess.  
There’s only one way to find out!

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Chipi Chipi [The Famous]

I got out of bed one night to head to the latrine.  I blearily made my way outside into the intense quiet and for one heart-leaping moment, I was convinced it was snowing.  In the glare of my headlamp I could see gently falling flecks swirling around my head.  Of course, I was comfortably standing outside in shorts, a tank top, and rainboots, so that explanation didn’t hold water.  It dawned on me that this new precipitation – not quite fog, mist, or drizzle – was the Chipi Chipi that the Verapaces are so famous for. 

The rainy season seems to be transitioning out of its roaring phase in which the clouds open up and pound down on the tin roof with a force that makes hearing one’s own thoughts a challenge.  This new mood of soundless wet creeps in and out of the valley and leaves laundry damp even when hung safely under the eaves.  This gentler phase is welcome.  It means the pathways are drying out into solid ground once more, and I no longer fear an involuntary slip-and-slide experience on my way between my house and the road. 

It does signal that dry days are probably not far off.  I need to begin to monitor how well the rain fills my water tank.  In the months to come I may wistfully think of the days when my laundry wouldn’t dry once I reach the point that water is not readily available for laundry on a whim.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Stoves [The Once and Future Project]

In my time in Alta Verapaz I have spent a fair amount of time working on developing an improved efficiency wood burning stove project. The cooperative where I work held a general assembly in September and voted down participating, so I won't see these put in during my time here. It’s a disappointment in some ways, but it was the decision of the community and that’s how things need to happen in participatory development.

I thought I'd still share what I've learned about the technology, since it is work that is being done by many other volunteers across Guatemala. Although its not a project I'll get done, it is certainly a relevant need for my community in A.V.

To set the scene, here are a few pictures of the current state of affairs in kitchens in my community. Almost all houses use an open fire on a fire table, relying on the smoke making its way out between the space where the roof and walls do not meet. This leads to smoke in the living space, which leads to increased respiratory problems affecting women and children the most. What's more, it's a very inefficient use of fire wood, putting a squeeze on family budgets (either through money spent to purchase the wood or time spent to collect it) and exacerbating deforestation problems.   

Now here is a set of photos of an improved wood burning stove under construction.  Most of these are from the trip that Wendy and I took to the department of San Marcos back in June to learn the construction process.  This particular style of stove is unique to that community, and was designed in collaboration with the participants/users to fit the cultural needs as an acceptable substitute for their previous set-up.

The builders take a hoe to the hard packed dirt floor to get the base level
and measured out to the right dimensions.
The base is three sides of a box built out of cinder block.
To prepare a concrete slab under the burning chamber, they built a frame
without nails so the wooden pieces could be easily removed and reused afterward.  
The finished form ready to pour the concrete.

The slab has rebar in the middle to provide structure. 
At this point the stove is left overnight to allow the concrete to set.

The next day, a third layer of block is placed upon the slab.
The blocks are filled with pumice to increase the thermal retention.
Bricks create an inner chamber, leaving another buffer of pumice between the blocks and bricks.
A pumice filling made the floor bricks ramp upwards toward the back of the stove.
This helps with air flow, and to prevent users from over-loading the stove with firewood.
The cracks were filled...
...and the stove top checked for a perfect fit.  
The chimney is a cement tube for the first meter, then continues up as metal.
The "hat" on the top of the chimney is a signature of every "improved stove."
The exterior is coated and smoothed, although the stove top is left loose for easy removal during cleaning.
A family posing by their completed stove.
The final product has the four signature features of an improved stove: A metal stove top, a door where the fuel is inserted, a chimney, and a "hat" on the chimney top. In addition, this stove is has a larger work space along the top, since the stove is the main item in Guatemalan kitchens. This provides counter space for use in food preparation or for eating. The side left open below the fire chamber acts as an ideal space to store fire wood, particularly in rainy locations such as Alta Verapaz where it is a challenge to keep firewood dry.   

Although these stoves won't be appearing in my community any time soon, I do still have hope that they will eventually be the standard kitchen ware here. I know that the process of developing the project captured the imaginations of many cooperative members, and that some of them may be just the leaders this community needs to get the project to fruition at some point in the future.  

Friday, September 30, 2011

Getting to Know You

After a few months of actually living with my host family, things are progressing well, though not without a few bumps in the road.

I have to say that as the younger of two, I now have more true empathy for older siblings than ever before. When the kids embraced me into the family, they did so without any concept of personal space or private property. My limited Q’eqchi’ skills reduced me to the vocabulary of a toddler with a new infant in the house. Without any verbal subtlety at my disposal, I was reduced to a lot of “ink’a!!” (no/don’t) and physically removing them from my room, or my belongings from their hands. Their eagerness and interest went a long way toward making me feel welcome, but also made me want to scream at times. When they lined up outside my window to called my name at three second intervals for ten minutes or so, I quickly learned they had nothing to tell me and nothing to show me (and I certainly wasn’t able to tell them anything), but just wanted my attention. This was endearing to a point, and then quickly tore my nerves to shreds.

Almost immediately after moving in I began a ritual around dinner time with the older two kids. Most nights I bring in some copy paper and crayons and we color before or after dinner. As my Q’eqchi’ classes progressed I was able to learn to say things like “play later” and “rest now”, which didn’t seem to register with the kids, but was enough for Clementina to step in and help place some boundaries. Now the moment I’m in sight during the day, the kids eagerly ask when we will color again. So, now we have a nearly daily play-date that helps channel all that energy and that acts as reinforcement for my new vocabulary words, too. It started out with all of us drawing separately, but we soon developed the habit of asking each other what to draw. Eventually I noticed that Heidi is quickly frustrated by drawing, so I’ve also started sketching the outlines of something and having her color it in. Freddie wanted in on that as well, although his confidence in drawing is stronger. I suppose kids demand equal treatment the world over.

On nights I get home in time, I also try to help make the tortillas for dinner. I use the word “help” a bit loosely, since the overall quality certainly suffers, and I’m not sure I even speed up the process much. But, it’s a nice way for me to hang out with Clementina, and she gives me tips here and there and points out when I manage to turn out a pretty good one. We laugh at the misshapen ones, and talk through the schedule for the next day so she knows if I’ll be around for meal times. Usually we get in past where my Q’eqchi’ and her Spanish will let us understand one another, and then we just wait for Mariano to get home and help translate. Often I will have tried several means of miming or drawing what I mean, and by the time we get things cleared up I feel I have played some combination of Pictionary and Gestures.  

I’m definitely learning to savor simple joys.

Some afternoons when I come home from errands or work I will pull out the chairs from my room and line them up on the walkway outside my door. The kids and I sit down and watch the world go by. Inevitably one of them will start crawling under the chairs while the rest of us pretend not to know where the crawler is. Simple games have simple grammar, and that works just perfectly for me. Now and then I’ll make a batch of popcorn or share out some apples or mandarins and we all munch away happily exclaiming about how tasty everything is. Even carrying water from my water tank to the pila on laundry days is a chance for the kids to feel helpful and included while we all troop around with buckets of water, shouting to hurry the next person back to the spigot before ours overflows.

Fill my cup and let it overflow. 

Monday, September 5, 2011

Suspicions Confirmed

Bugs really are bigger here in Alta.  More numerous, too. 

In my first few months here, I have encountered: disconcertingly large flying beetles, some of which look like miniature winged triceratops; the largest spiders I’ve ever seen outside of a terrarium; an orange and black centipede-like creature the length and width of my ring finger; cockroaches anywhere from one centimeter to two inches long; hopping cricket-grasshopper hybrids whose antenna are twice as long as their considerably long bodies; and large winged ant infestations – twice.  No scorpions yet.  Knock on wood.

These unwelcome visitors waited for me in places such as under my refrigerator, inside my dresser, inside my shoe, inside my suitcase, on the ceiling of my room, on the wall outside by the pila, on the path to the bathroom, inside the bathroom stall, under my latrine toilet seat, and flying up at me from inside my latrine while I was seated.

I’ll leave it to you to imagine where each creature lurked.

I’ve noticed spiders here have eyes that reflect the light of my headlamp.  This is helpful in that at night I tend to know when a spider is near before I actually cross its path.  This is also decidedly unhelpful in that it means I am aware of just how many spiders there are, and I get a case of the creepy crawlies far more frequently because of it.  In my book, any time you can have a staring contest with a spider it’s out of my comfort zone. 

Full disclosure, it doesn’t take much for a spider to be outside of my comfort zone.  I’m a bit arachnophobic, although daddy long-legs and anything smaller than a dime don’t faze me. I sometimes play with imagining a formula to determine at what point I go from calmly squishing the thing to having my heart rate and adrenaline spike while I get sweaty and nervous.  I think about variables like body size to leg length ratio, color, total diameter, and location encountered.  A PCV friend pointed out I’m attempting to find a rational pattern in a phobia, which is irrational by definition.   

When I spot a bug of any kind, it ends in one of three outcomes. 

First, I may decide it’s not a threat and feel free to leave it be.  This really only happens if the bug in question is outside, relatively small, and I can reasonably convince myself that I’m unlikely to encounter it again. 

Second, I may recruit help from a bystander.  My host father killed a large spider on the kitchen door for me with a piece of burning firewood.  My site mate often tells me not to look and takes care of a spider for me.  She is not afraid of spiders and I am not afraid of mice, so we trade off protecting one another. 

Third, I gather my pride and my courage and do battle myself.  I have a few designated kitchen implements for bug killing.  More than once I have to don boots and gloves before being brave enough to take matters into hand.  Freddie helped out in spotting and chasing cockroaches one afternoon.  Having him there helped me keep my head, since I ought to be at least as brave as a six-year-old.  Once a fellow PCV coached me by phone through a standoff with a large spider in my room as it approached midnight and I didn’t want to wake my host family for help.  I’m certain I woke them anyway with all my banging and laughing and “eeep”-ing.  Sometimes things get away and I have to accept a draw on the battle (although not the war).  There are at least two cockroaches who I swear like to come out from a crack in the corner of my roof just to taunt me and then run back into their lair.

My biggest hunting trophy from bug battles so far is the huge spider I encountered (outside, thankfully) and killed with a combination broom and hoe attack.  I definitely would have chickened out and asked Mariano for help, except I was too afraid to take my eyes off it in case it moved in the time it took me to go get someone.  I knew my arachnophobia would not allow me to sleep for days if I had seen the thing and then it disappeared to an unknown location.  So, I whacked it with a broom, twice.  I then took a picture with the broom and a triangle with centimeter markings on it.

After taking the photo, I realized it was NOT DEAD, but only stunned.  It started trying to walk again, so I found my hoe and then did my best to slice its body in half with the blade.  It was disgusting, terrifying, and a bit gratifying to have dealt with the situation on my own.

Despite all these many-legged irritants, I usually get by without a lot of irrational behavior.  Admittedly, I do sometimes wake up from a buggy dream convinced that I just saw something in my room (which was impossible with my eyes shut and the room dark…).  I cannot decide whether it is better to set up the mosquito net over my bed to help such things, or if my paranoia will just shift to thinking there is something stuck inside the net with me.  I figure by the end of my time here, I will either be a battle-hardened bug killer, or I will have developed some strange form of creepy-crawly-induced PTSD. 

I’m voting for the first.


Truly, I do not wish this entry to be a deterrent to anyone planning to visit me or others in Guatemala.  You can have a perfectly pleasant visit here, to Alta Verapaz or other places without fearing bug issues.  Even if you encounter such things, the locals (including yours truly) will protect you!

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Vacation and Visitors

In the middle of July I took off from my site yet again for a frolic with some quality friends from my years working at a summer camp in Montana.  This was my first vacation time in the nearly year I had spent in Guatemala, and I savored every moment.  We wandered Antigua, took some tours, hiked Volcano Pacaya, and stayed at an incredible spot on Lake Atitlán.  After that we went to Honduras for a week to enjoy the Copan Ruins, the beach up near Tela, and to spend some time at our friend’s volunteer site where she is spending a year in Honduras working as a nurse at a children’s home and clinic.  Just as important as our itinerary, we ate well, did lots of laughing and talking, earned a few ridiculous travel stories, and despite many, many hours on buses, we managed to strike a balance between being adventuresome and actually relaxing as well.

All in all, “Worth it!”

Checking out the market at Chichicastenango
Enjoying the view of three other volcanoes from the side of Pacaya
Watching a storm roll over Lake Atitlan
Who doesn't love a smoothie?
Kayaking.  Yes.
The four of us in Copan
Copan Ruinas
Checking out the menacing jellyfish.
We did a little snorkeling anyway... in the shallows.
Boat ride across the ocean to a park on a penninsula

Monday, August 22, 2011

New Digs, Again.

The day I got back to the Cooperative after the 4th of July festivities, my about-to-be-Host Dad asked me when I was going to move into my new room.  It had been about finished before I left town, but the cement was still letting out a bit of moisture and I figured rent would be easier if I just moved in at the beginning of a new month.  I said, oh, give me two day to get my stuff reorganized and ready.  He said, but I already have men lined up to help tomorrow. 

So, I moved the next day.

It amounted to a parade through town of all of my possessions in the arms or strapped to the backs of four cheerful men.  They were game to take every load by themselves, including my stove and refrigerator.  This was down a steep rocky slope, along a road, and then 100 yards down a narrow path with coffee bushes crowding the way.  The one thing they broke down and shared the load on was my dresser.  All four ended up pairing up and carrying it with each person shouldering a corner, and they even walked the long way around to avoid taking the steep path. 

I have to say, that I have always hated moving (I know, join the club).  This was bar none the easiest moving experience I have had.  It’s enough to make me rethink the do-it-yourself mentality I usually have when approaching big projects.  Admittedly, I didn’t have to pay these men – my host family thanked them with a snack, and they may or not have been given some cash by the cooperative.  But, I’m really thinking that hiring movers may be the way to go to make my life a lot easier next time I have to transplant myself and my belongings.  Stateside, that is.

My new home is a large room built onto the end of my host family’s existing house.  I have my own entrance and two windows.  The ceiling covers ¾ of the room, leaving me a space to put things up in the loft for storage.  I have all my kitchen stuff with me, but am eating all my meals with the host family for the time being.  It’s a little less space than the last place I was, but doesn’t feel overcrowded at all.  The family built me my own latrine, and the cooperative loaned us a black water tank to capture rain water for my use.  We share the pila, but I only do laundry about once a week so we haven’t had much waiting on one another to get access. 

With the windows open.  Note my bright yellow mud boots on the left.  I get great comments on those.  

The door is open... the wall on the right continues until it hits the far end.

The gate is a huge help in keeping out small animals, and small children...
while still letting in a bit of daylight!
My own brand new private latrine.
 It's a curious feeling breaking one in for the first time...
and knowing that if it smells there is no one to blame but myself.

The water tank in the foreground, my bathing stall in the background.
Plus, a sidewalk from my door to the bathing stall!
Apparently they didn't want me getting muddy on my way back from the bath.  I'm so spoiled.

The family's water deposit.  

The older two kids at the door to the kitchen.
You can see part of the firewood stash and some drying laundry off to the left.  

Home Sweet Home. 

Monday, August 15, 2011

Alta Verapaz Family

The first weekend in June, I had to choose my destiny for where to live in my aldea. After visiting the two options available to me, I settled on one and we arranged for them to build a new room on the end of their house where I could live. The Peace Corps fronted the money for the construction, and I will deduct that for my rent until the loan is paid back. That’s not a very common solution, but in the case of my site there are no homes with extra rooms that meet the requirements for the Peace Corps, and the families don’t tend to have enough capital to construct a room on their own.

Once I had settled on my future host family, I began going to their house to eat breakfast and dinner. Cooking often would have been difficult with my belongings scattered across the cooperative, mostly still in boxes. Plus, I saw this as an opportunity to start getting to know the family right away.
My new “host father,” Mariano, is a little younger than me. He turned 26 at the end of July, and is a kind, shy man, who does speak Spanish but lacks confidence and uses confusing grammar. Still, he is good natured about it and we make it work, chuckling and giggling when we run out of ways to explain things and get lost in our own conversations.

My “host mother,” Clementina, is 23. She is extremely quiet and speaks no Spanish, but has a sweet smile and a talent for cooking tasty things with a pretty limited range of ingredients. She makes the best tortillas (and nearly the biggest ones) I’ve encountered in Guatemala.

I have three host siblings: Freddie, 6; Heidi, 4; and Gladys, 2. They didn’t have much of a shy period, and moved into play with me pretty quickly. While I was still commuting to eat with them I would become a human drum set before and after meals. What started as my attempts at patty-cake turned into simply banging on me in various places to see what sounds I made. At the time they spoke no Spanish and I spoke no Q’eqchi’, so basic smiling and patting one another was enough to build a friendship.

My favorite moment during June with my host family has to be when Wendy and I goaded Mariano into trying to tortillar (shape the tortillas with his hands). He had been observing Wendy and my mediocre attempts at copying Clementina, and felt free to teasingly criticize our technique. When we realized he’d never done it in his life, we returned the teasing mercilessly until he crossed the gender divide to prove his mettle.

In some ways our triumph in getting him to try it was marred by the fact that he seems to have much more natural talent for it than either of us do.

Freddie got in on the fun, too.

Although living with a host family again after such a long amount of solitude in Sololá inevitably involves adjustment, I was and am pleased as punch that this is the new family I get to live with.

The three kiddos. Their mom is camera shy, so no picture of her for now.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Celebrity in the House

My cat, Canchita, showed very little stress over our transition to Alta Verapaz. She rode on my lap in a carrier all the way in the truck on moving day, and was out exploring the cooperative immediately upon arrival. She quickly learned that she could enter and exit my room through the ceiling, and reigned over the rafters of the building in no time.

The community as a whole took a shine to her right away. Within days Site Mate Wendy and I were joking that she would get a bigger goodbye party than we would at the end of our time here. They certainly learned to pronounce her name long before they learned mine. Perhaps it was because it felt like a safe topic of conversation or perhaps because she is a pet and not just a rodent catcher, but just about every person I met asked about her. 

Everyone wanted to see my cat, they wanted to know what she ate, where she slept, and were convinced that I had brought her with me from the States. Over and over I had to explain that no, she is as Chapin (Guatemalan) as the rest of the animals in the community and that I was given her by another Guatemalan family. 

The next question was usually when she would have babies. When I explained I had had her fixed to prevent such things they looked at me like I had three heads. Never mind that litters of puppies and kittens are regularly born and die before making it to maturity here in my aldea. I think because she seems so healthy and is a good hunter, they all wanted my cat’s genes working to keep their own house rodent free. In their minds, her health seems to be totally unrelated to her having been vaccinated and being fed a diet of real cat food. 

Overall, I was thankful to have her along as an extra means to connect with the people coming through the co-op while I was living there in June. The only exception to this was the day I returned from travelling out of town and found myself locked out of the cooperative. My future host father had loaned me his key, but I was having no luck getting into the building. The instructions he had given me amounted to a secret handshake of some kind with turning the key all the way around a few times then pulling back on the door while doing a quarter turn the other way. 

I had made the mistake of calling to Canchita when I walked up the stairs. When I didn’t appear in the room right away, she made her way through the rafters to stand above me in the ceiling over the porch and mrooowl and miaaaht at me like I was an idiot for not understanding how to make the key and lock cooperate with one another. Eventually she found a hole in a knot in the wood and stuck her head down to peer at me and my doorway incompetence. 

I decided to cut my losses, take a picture of her looking ridiculous, and take a nap on the porch until someone with the knowhow to get the door open came by the coop. When someone finally did, his first question upon opening the door for me was, ”Ut lamis?” (And your cat?). It’s not so bad living in the shadow of a celebrity. 

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Call it Middling

On August 11, 2010, I left the US for Guatemala. One year ago.

We usually talk about the Peace Corps as a two year commitment, but really it is 27 months. So now that I have reached the one year mark, I feel a little strange. Like I´m going into halftime in a sporting event, or intermission at a theater. I´ve been counting up how many months I have been here each step of the way, and now I´ve been here a year, but have more than a year to go. In November I´ll head to my Mid Service Conference and I suppose my mental clock will start ticking back downward… only 11 months to go… 8…. 3…. Etc….

I don´t want to seem like I´m counting the days in any sort of ¨get me out of here¨ mentality, but because this experience has such a defined timeline, it´s hard not to note the passage of time. I hit six months in country and thought, huh, that went fast. I hit six months in my site in Sololà and thought, shoot, I haven´t made it very far. Now I´ve been in country a year and all expectations or benchmarks have been smashed, so I don´t know what to think.

In some ways these next three months are like the turn of the tide. I feel I am in stasis… things are not coming closer nor pulling farther away. Unlike intermission and half time, things will not be standing still in my site… indeed I am busy dawn to dusk and hope to make a lot of progress on some tangible projects as well as relationships, language skills, and the rest of intangible things that add up to be development work. Still, mentally, I think I am now going to disengage from counting down or counting up the months, weeks, and days. Here I am. I might as well be here. I think I´ll call this the Middling Season.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Week in San Marcos

After IST, Wendy and I headed back to site for just over a week, only to turn around and leave again.  During IST we had connected with a Food Security PCV one year ahead of us who has done a lot of work on estufas mejoradas (improved stoves), which is one of the projects that we are working to implement up in A.V. (replacing cooking over an open fire).  So, we arranged to spend a few more of our training days out in his site in San Marcos.  It took us two days to get there, we spent two days constructing two stoves, one day delivering construction materials, and then headed back to the PC Office again for the All Volunteer Conference and 4th of July festivities. 

One of the stoves we built, approaching the finish.

Dolled up for the 4th

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Black Bean Burgers!

In the third week of June, I joined Wendy for my first cooking class in Alta Verapaz. Wendy hadn’t actually tried the recipe before, so she stayed late at the co-op with me one night and we tried them out to work out any glitches in advance. The Guatemalans who were passing by on their way home all thought we were insane for having a meal without tortillas (honestly, we didn’t have buns, either – the bean patties were pretty much the whole menu). Wendy’s counterpart, Irma, was so concerned about our tortilla-less situation that she went and found someone making tortillas to give some to us. Even when we try to cook for ourselves we have people looking out for us.

I really liked the burgers, and they were a hit with both groups of women we taught the recipe.  So, I thought I’d share them with you.
The women mashed the beans on the same piedra de moler where they prep their corn dough for tortillas.  You can do it however you want, just get them kinda paste-y (not liquid).

The women don't seem to have cutting-boards, or consider them necessary.  They are pros with wielding knives mid air.

No spoons for mixing for them, either... just kneading with their hands.

Pans over an open fire... forks instead of spatulas.

Filomena showing off some of the burgers once cooked.

Black Beans (one can)
Oatmeal (3/4 cup)
Egg (one or two)
Garlic (3 small cloves)
Onion (one small onion, diced)
Carrot (1/2 cup shredded)
Bell Pepper (diced)
Salt (to taste)
Pepper (to taste)
Oil (for sautéing)

Take half of beans and mash them into a paste, then add the other half.  Add the veggies and spices.  Scramble the egg and add.  Add oatmeal to reach desired consistency.  Form burger patties by hand… this takes some practice and the mixture sometimes needs some encouragement to stay together. 

Fry the patties in a small amount of oil in frying pan (just enough to keep it from sticking… this was a hard point to get across to the women).  Trying to flip the patties too soon may make them crumble apart.  They’ll still taste good, but will be harder to serve. 

All the proportions are guidelines only.  Trial and error is the best way to work out what combo makes things stick together best for you.  We haven’t tried radishes in there yet, but we bet they would be good in place of (or as well as) the carrots.  Also, for those of you who have access to them, I’m sure leeks would be delicious!