Friday, February 25, 2011

Tick Tock.

Anyone who has spent much time outside of their home country will note that there is a wide variety of views on time and punctuality in the world.  While there’s plenty variety within countries, I think it’s fair to say the US as a whole tends to fall closer to the up tight end of the spectrum than most. 

Think about it.  Our watches have milliseconds.  Our flight times tend to be something like 7:06 or 1:34.  High schools have 50 minute classes with 5 minute passing periods.  Need an early out day?  No problem.  Each class period will just be cut down to 42 minutes.  People show up early for events to make sure they get a good seat.  We have an entire advertising industry devoted to the twenty minutes before each movie showtime.  That’s before the trailers begin.  Many people arrive a little early for meetings to be able to fill their coffee mug and settle in.  Sure, there’s always one in the crowd rolling in 5-10 minutes late, but it’s usually just one. 

We’ve got a slew of proverbs and adages about the importance of time.  The early bird gets the worm.  A stitch in time saves nine.  There’s no time like the present.  Time and tide wait for no man.  Time is money.  Using time well is a virtue in US society and rightfully so (how to define “well” is another conversation).

Within the US spectrum, I’ve always thought of myself as a relaxed yet more or less prompt person.  I like to be on time, and if I know I’ll get there more than 5-10 minutes late I usually call or send a message to let people waiting on me know why.  As a kid I wasn’t late to school.  My good friend who lived around the corner always seemed to be five minutes early to events, so I thought I was running late when I arrived right on time.  I remember one morning when I woke up late somehow my mom drove me to school with such urgency we went up over the curb as we rounded the corner, a big deal to my eight-year-old self.

My family had our own favorite phrases on time, too.   Anyone who slept in late risked being labeled a “slug-a-bed,” and having the covers of her bed summarily torn off.   Staying in the tent a little too late in the morning on camping trips usually resulted in our parents picking up the end of our sleeping bags and dumping us (screeching with laughter) out of the tops.   The ever popular, “Daylight’s a wasting,” and “Stir your stumps,” came out fairly often.  Or the idealistic, “What have you done for the good of the world today?” 

I don’t mean to say that I don’t enjoy my idleness or take time to rest.  I love a slow day as much as the next person.  I like to knit while listening to podcasts or music.  A day with a book, walk, movie or nap eased in between meals is a day well spent, in my book.  When I don't have responsibilities to others in a given day, I can take free reign to enjoy myself quite happily.  

So, I knew more or less what I was getting into when I came to Guatemala.  I knew I was stepping into a different rhythm of life and prepared myself to embrace the slower side of life.  To have many a lazy day as I learned my community and began to form work projects little by little.  I learned that the Guatemalan phrase on time is hay mas tiempo que vida (there’s more time than life).  I came to understand, and even expect, that meetings would start at least half an hour late.  I take it in stride when women arrive late to meetings that Ela and I hold, and have learned to keep a book handy when going to meet someone.

The thing is, I get it.  Mostly.  Most of the people in my community don't have formal work.  They run a household or work in the fields.  No one has their day planned out down to 15 minute chunks in Outlook.  There aren't any consequences in showing up late.  People don't expect promptness, and don't take offense when it's absent.  That's a little different in the municipality and schools, perhaps, but even there things are pretty relaxed.

What I didn’t expect was just how deeply imbedded my need to be on time really is.  While I can accept others arriving behind schedule, I simply can’t bring myself to be late in work situations.  And when I am made late by others, my own reactions shock me.  I am frustrated, annoyed, and truly angry.  I feel I have been forced to be disrespectful and unprofessional.  I know that those who are waiting on me probably don’t judge me for my lateness, and may not even notice the issue at all.  But I do notice.  And I do care.  I don’t seem to be able to do as the Romans do.  I can let them have their ways, but my own understanding of responsible and respectful behavior is too strong to let myself copy them.  I wonder if time will make me less rigid in this.  If not, I may need to work on my anger management skills.

Better yet, maybe I can just summon Tock, the fictional Watch Dog from Phantom Tollbooth to sing some sense into these Guatemalans!  As he says, “Look, son, it's bad enough wasting time without killing it.”  Right before announcing, "Time is your friend," and bursting into song.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

I Like to Eat, Eat, Eat...

...Eepples and Beneenees...

Today I went to the market to replenish my food stores after my week away.  I usually avoid going to town on Sundays since it is the big market day and I just get overwhelmed with the crush of the crowd.  I didn't have much choice with bare shelves, so I waited for the afternoon since things would clear out a bit and headed over around 1:00.  By 2:00 I had purchased fruits and veggies from half a dozen stalls was headed back home with a full tote bag and a wallet about 16Q lighter (about $2).

The apple wasn't bought today, just cleaned today.

The haul:
Onions (2 lbs)
Carrots (a bag of 5)
Avocados (4)
Bell pepper (1)
Chile peppers (5)
Bananas (12 mini-sized)
Tomatoes (1 lb)
Potatoes (1 lb)

Other than price differences, eating produce here requires a few extra steps than those I took back home.  Things like bananas and avocados are easy; just peel, prep (if you care to), and eat.  Pretty much everything else goes through the three containers method.  One bucket to scrub off visible dirt (using chorro water from the tap), ten minutes in the second bucket of chorro water with either bleach or a produce-specific cleaner added in, the third bucket for a quick rinse in bottle water.  

My veggie cleaner of choice
All this purification and hygiene work may seem a bit paranoid of me, and I know many volunteers who don't bother to go through the steps.  I also know some who have fallen sick with horrible digestive stuff from ignoring the precautions.

After all, in the US we just rinse off our produce and eat... not always bothering to rinse it.  However, there is the Clean Water Act in the US.  It's safe to drink tap water in the US (although many choose to filter it even so).  Produce is generally purchased in grocery stores or carefully beautified farmers market stalls.  Human waste goes through wastewater treatment plants in the US.  There are FDA inspectors that check over our food supply.  And yet, there are food recalls and food poisoning problems in the US, too.

Here, the water may be fine, but it may not be.  Sometimes water comes from a spring, but it may come from the river, and who knows what is happening upstream.  Since livestock are found throughout the town between houses and latrines are the human waste disposal system of choice, there are plenty of accessible sources of the dreaded FOC (fecal-oral contamination) to be spread around by flies.  Stalls in the market may store food in baskets or tarps on the ground, close to litter and feces and bugs.  Naturally, it's a buyer beware environment and I watch how people set up their stalls when I choose where to buy.  Still, for me, I don't mind an extra ten or twenty minutes of extra precaution.

The rub is, most of the Guatemalans in my community don't go through these steps.  One more factor contributing to chronic malnutrition.  It's hard for your body to absorb nutrients when your GI is doing its best to evacuate whatever nastiness hitchhiked its way in with your food.  One thing I'm hoping/planning to do is work with the local health post to see if we can raise awareness of the issue, and improve access to the means to remedy it.  Here's hoping!

Too Many Lentils

A few weeks ago I tried a new recipe for lentil burgers with a friend.  In the prep, I measured out two cups of uncooked lentils into the pan, while the recipe called for two cups of already cooked lentils.  Turns out lentils about triple in size.  Whoops.

As I prepared to get out of town last week I realized I had an odd assortment of things left in my fridge.  So, I made an experimental Lentil Soup that turned out pretty darn well.  Among other things, Peace Corps is teaching me to let go of absolute recipes (my sister ought to be so proud, she's never followed a recipe straight through in her life).  Turns out things can taste pretty good when just thrown together, so long as you have that always helpful sauce of Hunger.

I honestly don't remember exactly what all went in or what proportions, so I'm going to try to let you know more or less what I had on hand.  Feel free to do what I did -- improvise.

Garlic (3 cloves)
Onions (one?  two?  don't remember)
Vegetable Oil (a good splash)
Carrots (two)
Lentils (a few cups... not sure how much I had)
Ham (in my case, left over lunch meat)
Tomato (one last lonely tomato in my basket)
Potato (ditto)
(I didn't have any celery, but I bet it would be a good addition)

Season to taste with:
....anything else that sounds good.  I just went with what was available.

I threw the oil, garlic, and onions in first, shortly followed by the carrots and potatoes.  Since my lentils were already cooked, they got to head in later... if you're starting with dried lentils I'd guess they'd have to be right up there with onions and would take a fair bit of time on their own.

I got so busy throwing things in that I didn't take photos of the intermediate steps.  Suffice it to say that the tomatoes and ham went in toward the end, and the spices were thrown in throughout to taste.

It didn't turn out all that beautiful to look at, but it was tasty, filling, and emptied out the cupboard!  I highly suggest it next time you're just too lazy to go grocery shopping, or if you need to get out of town like I did.  Crusty bread in place of the club crackers would have been divine, but I'll have to wait for that addition another 21 months or so.  


Cultural note:  Lentils are definitely not a Guatemalan staple.  I found these in a store in Xela, and haven't seen them in any of the local markets.  At the same time, the concept isn't so far away from beans, so it seems like if they were more widely available it would be an easy thing for Guatemalans to embrace.  


I've been travelling.  Here's what happened:

Friday 11th:  6 month anniversary in Guatemala!  Rode to Antigua in a chicken bus seated uncomfortably close to a man with an impressive curly mullet.  No pictures, sorry.

Saturday 12th:  Climbed my second volcano in country (Pacaya!) with about half the PCVs who swore in with me.  We roasted marshmallows at the top (from heat escaping from a crack in the earth) and hiked down in the dark with headlamps.  

Sunday 13th:  Got my first hair cut in country... I figure I ought to do it at least once every six months right?  Also, we went out on the town in the most ugly PACA (second hand clothes exported from the US) finds perhaps ever worn out in public.

Monday 14th:  Day one of Reconnect.  Ended up being a mixture of processing and venting in our tech groups.  Got a calidad Valentine's gift in our PCV Valentine exchange... the Wrinkle In Time books!  

Tuesday 15th:  Day two of Reconnect.  Focus group on how training had gone in the morning, and a pizza lunch and Q&A session with the US Ambassador to Guatemala.  

Wednesday 16th:  Woke in what felt like the Twilight Zone.  Since I was participating in a workshop looking at redesigning the PC Sustainable Agriculture program in Guatemala, I was staying in a hotel with hot water coming out of the tap!  Total reality shift.

Thursday 17th: Finished up the workshop, feeling like I shouldn't eat for the rest of the month after not having turned down a single morsel for the previous 48 hours.  I feel I was victim of the "now or never" mentality.  I don't know when I've eaten that well.

Friday 18th:  Worked on some planning for the internal Ag Magazine for PC Guatemala with some other PCVs, then headed back to site.  It's good to be home!

Sunday, February 6, 2011

My Mostly Companion

It all started one early morning back during training.  I had woken needing to use the restroom just before 5 a.m., but was unable to do so because someone was in the shower.  Another person got into the shower immediately following the first, leaving me with an uncomfortably full bladder and an irritated attitude.  I hadn’t slept well, and really wanted to take care of things and get back to sleep.  Instead, I was halfway in bed feeling huffy while I tried to listen for my cue to run into the restroom. 

Finally, I gave up on sleep around 6:20, as I needed to be down to the highway and on a bus by 7:00.  I grumpily turned on my light and went to put on some clothing (still awaiting bathroom access).  To my bleary surprise, this is what greeted me.

I wasn’t sure what I was seeing at first.

No, I wasn’t crazy.  One of the host family cats had somehow become a stowaway in an upper shelf of my wardrobe all night long.  It was so strange (and she was so cute) that it broke me out of my funk and made me laugh out loud.  I wasn’t even able to work up anger over the fur she left on my clothing.

That little ball of fur that changed my mood is named Canchita, meaning blonde or light-haired; this is usually applied to foreigners, but can also be used to describe Guatemalans who have anything other than black hair.  Even slight streaks of brown will get locals labeled Canche. 

Right away Canchita had pegged me as a sucker.  She must have learned from the previous two Trainees that Americans are softies and willing to offer pets, laps, and general cuddling in a way that almost no Guatemalans are likely to do.  At first she would sneak onto my lap in the main room, but was soon cleverly escaping the family’s attempts to throw her out of the house at night by entering my room through a hole in the wall between my room and the kitchen.  The family assured me she had fleas, but I saw no evidence of them.

Now, Canchita’s sister, Blanca (meaning white – not the most creative names, eh?) was pregnant and had three little kittens while I was there.  My madre offered me one of them, and said my friends might adopt the others, too.  Admittedly, they were adorable.

I spent plenty of time playing with them (and my host brothers).  I kept putting off choosing, saying I needed to see their personalities.  But when my madre mentioned her plans to keep one of the kittens (who were all male) and give away the adult cats to avoid having more litters in the future, I saw my opening.  If she was going to send Canchita away, she was sending her with me!

So, when I moved to Site, Canchita came too.  She made the trip stuffed into a costal (woven plastic tote bag), and ended up making a smelly mess all over my host mother’s foot in the bus.  She spent the first week and a half hidden under my borrowed bed and I feared she’d never forgive me (or clean herself off properly!).  Of course, she eventually warmed to the change of scene, though is still wary of the kids and dogs.  Now that we’ve moved up to my cottage she can come and go freely by entering and exiting the house through the roof, and accompanies me on my household chores.

When I’m doing laundry, she basks in the nearest patch of sunlight, just on the edge of the shade from the house.

When I head to the latrine she’s got my back, day or night.

If I turn my back, she’ll try to be helpful with the dishes.  In fact, she’ll try to be helpful eating my bread, tortillas, tostadas, and granola if I’m not careful with the pantry.  While she’s been happy with the switch to concentrado (actual cat food), she must still get nostalgic cravings for her pan dulce days.  I’m going to be investing in some more sturdy storage containers.

If it’s napping that needs doing, she’s happy to lead the way.

Overall, I’d say adopting Canchita (well, allowing myself to be claimed by her) has been excellent for my mental and emotional health.  I can talk to her in whichever language I want, she’s a reliable and prompt dinner companion, and helps warm me up on the chilly (occasionally freezing) nights.  Best of all she makes me laugh when it’s tempting to let petty grievances get a little too large in my mind’s eye.  Maybe I sound like a crazy cat lady alone in my cottage anthropomorphizing my little friend, but I'm glad Canchita is my Mostly Companion.