Monday, May 30, 2011

Moving Day: A Tale in Three Acts

In the week leading up to my move from Sololá to Alta Verapaz, my (ridiculously wonderful) new site mate and I had gone through the wringer trying to figure out how to get me and my belongings halfway across Guatemala. We ended up hiring a truck owned by one of the asocios (members) of my host Co-operative, but we didn’t know how big it was. The description she had from those who knew was that it was “a little bigger” than a Mazda pickup truck (essentially a flete, which was our other option). I prioritized the furniture I have, figuring out what I might have to leave behind… putting my bed, refrigerator, and stove first, and really hoping to get my dresser in after that. I stacked together the best of my dishes and shoved my clothes back into the suitcase and backpack I brought with me from the US, and hoped for the best.

The truck that met me on Thursday night erased all need for such things. I could have easily fit twice what I own in this thing. It was tempting to just load the entire house on the back of the truck whole!

Act I: A Long Slow Start

The actual moving day got off to an exhausting start with cranky digestion getting me out of bed three times in the six hours I had hoped to sleep. I was that much more restless wondering if this was the beginning of an illness that would mean I’d be breaking up our drive with frequent mad dashes for the bushes (thankfully, whatever it was got out of my system by morning). At four fifteen I got up to wrap my farewell gifts for my host family / counterpart and packing up my bedding. At five o’clock the president of my new cooperative was at my door with the three others from my new community who had come with him to help pack me up and bring me back with them.

The loading process had some extra challenges thrown in. When moving into my cottage we drove the truck with my stuff up the driveway and parked it in the patio of the family compound, carrying items the last 35 meters or so up a narrow dirt path, crossing under some low hanging cables as a mini obstacle course. On the way back out, the truck was too big to make it up the driveway. The once open patio was under construction to build an adobe walled kitchen, leaving uneven and narrow pathways with sharp corners. After navigating the original path and the patio, we had another 40-50 meters down the driveway to the truck. Everything was strapped in and ready by 6:20, so I went back up the hill to pay the last of my bills and say goodbye. By 6:40 a.m. we were on the road.

By 7:15 a.m. we were back off the road for a breakfast stop. Almost two hours later we were on the road again after an extended filter cleaning and various bits of mucking about under the hood on our vehicle.

Act II: Things Get Confusing

An hour later we were stopped again by a group of policeman at a checkpoint on the highway, who looked at our registration and informed us it had expired last October. I don’t know if there was a fine paid, an officer paid off, or just a warning given, but 20 minutes later we were moving again.

At this point I started drifting in and out of sleep. The three people around me in the cab (the fourth person was riding in the back of the truck) were chatting animatedly in Q’eqchi’ and I was just as glad they didn’t want to make conversation. My body wanted sleep. As I came in and out of awareness, it became clear we were lost in Guatemala City. I kept thinking that we’d have made it out by the next time I woke, but that was not the case.

Eventually I shook myself into alertness and did my best to figure out what was going on. Every two minutes or so, we’d hail down a neighboring driver or a pedestrian and ask for directions. Our driver would then proceed to NOT follow the advice we received. In one case we were told to turn right and then get on the highway by way of a clover leaf. We drove past the clover leaf instead. In another case we were told to drive five blocks to the Coca Cola factory. The driver counted to three and then stopped to ask someone else. In the distance that he counted to three, I only saw us pass one intersection.

When it finally seemed we were making progress, the president of my cooperative went to jump out the passenger door in search of directions while we were in stopped traffic. As he opened the door, he clipped a passing motorcyclist, whipping the door open, catapulting himself out the door, and sending the motorcycle and its rider sprawling out on the ground in front of us. A traffic officer came up and demanded whose fault it was, and, naturally everyone claimed innocence. Just as things were getting heated the driver of my truck pulled out some cash and immediately everyone was chuckling and slapping each other on their backs.

We made it out of the city with only three more requests for directions, and settled into highway driving once more.

Act III: Charting New Waters

As we turned North and headed into El Progreso, I began to get concerned. Rather, I got hot, and then I got uncomfortable, sweaty, and apprehensive. With four of us in the cab plus Canchita on my lap in a carrier, there was not a lot of wiggle room. My rear felt like it would never recover from sitting in the same position for so long. There was a man riding in the back of a truck on top of a stack of car tires driving in front of us, which gave me heat stroke just watching him. What’s more, it was close to 2:00 and we hadn’t stopped for lunch, nor had we discussed the prospect of doing so. The president was optimistically saying he thought we’d arrive by 4:00 but I knew we had at least four more hours to go. Heat, close quarters, and low blood sugar aren’t a great combination, I have to say.

Thankfully, we did stop for lunch, and continued the journey with only three (plus the cat) in the cab, leaving two in the back. As we worked our way into Baja Verapaz and eventually Alta Verapaz, the weather mercifully turned cooler. All my previous impressions of Guatemala having deforestation problems and a dearth of wildlife were contradicted by the lush countryside we were passing. The hillsides were covered by forests that blurred the lines between shrubs and trees. There were a handful of pines that looked to be cousins of the Ponderosa and Jack Pine in the states, but there were far more massive bushy tree-shrubs that made me think of Honeylocust and Hawthorne trees. Many trees I didn’t recognize at all, but there were some more tropical offerings such as Banana trees sprinkled in as well. I saw hawks and other birds somewhere between the size of ravens and vultures. I began to suspect it is with good reason that so many of the Peace Corps Ecotourism Volunteers head up to this region.

As we neared the end of the journey, the weather turned rainy and the truck turned ornery. We stopped every few kilometers as the engine died, and eventually all unloaded to tilt the cab forward and get in to the engine. They did something to the filter again after telling me there was water in the diesel, and as it got dark we pulled into Cobán at last. From there we drove to my new municipality and turned off to the rocky dirt road winding up, over, and around the rolling (and sometimes diving) hills. With every building we passed I wondered which marked the start of my new community, although I was too exhausted to be very nervous. At last around 7:30 p.m. we pulled up to the Co-operative building and tumbled out of the cab. After a long day travelling away from home, I was newly home again.


There was an overwhelming crowd of people waiting to greet us when we arrived, and all my belongings were unloaded, examined, and commented upon within minutes. Women and men came up and hugged me or patted me on the arm, some speaking to me in Q’eqchi’, others in Spanish, others not speaking at all. Sitemate and I managed to restrain ourselves to a shoulder pat as well, holding in the hugging squealing gringa reaction dying to get out.

A rain storm erupted on us as the last few items were unloaded, and we all filed into the main meeting room where I sat beside my traje-clad (traditionally dressed) site mate in front of a sea of eager and curious faces. Over the roar of rain on lamina (corrugated metal), the president introduced me to the crowd in Q’eqchi’ while a woman translated into my ear. I was asked to give a few words, so I did, and then was prompted to give more when the length of my comments was deemed insufficient by my translator. Other people also stood and spoke in varying attitudes, and on varying topics, and then we were all fed carrot cake followed by caldo de res (traditional festive soup… not my favorite, but an honor nonetheless). Eventually people started taking their leave and late at night my site mate and I were left in the co-op to put my bed back together and marvel at our luck.

And thus, the next adventure begins!

Monday, May 23, 2011


Any move, any transition is generally a mixed blessing. Usually we are moving toward something better (or at least think we are), or we wouldn't be moving at all. I am very excited for my new site in Alta Verapaz. I am excited about my new host organization (a coffee and cardamom cooperative), I am excited about my new site mate, and I'm thrilled to be going somewhere that (reportedly) is very eager for a volunteer and is ready to engage in food security work. 

As much as I'm happy to be looking forward, there are things that I am sad to be leaving behind in my site here. Here are some of the big ones, in no particular order:
  1. Warm-Cool-Cold.
    I have been living at around 2400 meters in elevation since moving to my aldea here in Sololá, and I love it. In the months between November and February I found ice in my pila a handful of times, drank lots of hot tea, and generally bundled up as soon as the sun went down. I like that the cold keeps the spiders small(ish), the mosquitoes few, and the scorpions nonexistent. I sleep well under a sheet, two thick blankets, a coverlet, and a cat. The days have been warm when sunny, cool when cloudy. All of this suits me just fine. I figure you can always add more layers of clothing, but there are only so many you can take off (particularly in a conservative country like Guatemala). My new site will probably be more on a Hot-Warm-Cool spectrum of weather, and will be considerably wetter than where I am now. So, maybe all of you imagining me in a tropical locale may actually be correct once I move.

  2. The Highway.
    This sounds odd, I know, but it's a huge benefit living right by the highway. I know I've not expressed a lot of enthusiasm for travel around here, particularly by way of Chicken Bus. What it has meant for me is that I can take day trips on a weekend to visit three friends from training in Sumpango, who are all scattered along the highway within about 2.5 hours of me. The four of us have been able to gather at least once a month, and have benefited from all the joking, venting, and stress relief that can bring. It also means I can take a quick shopping trip into a city on just one bus, instead of needing to transfer several times. Trips to the PC office are doable in a day, just 2.5 hours away. My new site will be much more remote, but that has advantages, too!

  3. My Cottage.
    It has been such a luxury having my own little space that where I can clean, cook, work, relax, exercise, laugh, cry, be alone, and entertain friends. I've managed a nice nest here, with a few decorations on the inside and beautiful views on the outside. My cottage has been a little oasis for me, where I can control things (other than occasional bug invasions) in the midst of a situation in which most things felt far out of my control. I am moving to A.V. site unseen, so I have a temporary housing arrangement in the the Co-op building while I choose between three options that all need some finishing touches before I can move in.

  4. The Internet.
    I have been utterly spoiled by fairly fast, fairly reliable internet here in my house. For the most part, if there is power, there is internet. I Skype with friends and family at home, keep up on national and world news, and watch the occasional funny video clip. I'm not sure if I will be able to get internet service in my new aldea at all, and if I do it will be substantially slower. I will still have the opportunity to use internet cafes more than once a week. I predict more book reading and guitar playing in my future, and that's a good thing.

  5. Familiar Faces.
    I can't claim that I have developed any real friendships here in town, but I do have the comfort of familiarity here. I see the same people in the street, and they usually smile and respond to my greetings. There are the girls that work in the little shop nearby that learned my name, and tease me about my purchases. There is the town nurse, who has been warm and friendly. There are the truck drivers who look out for me. Over in the pueblo I have my site mate and my K'iche' teachers, the students and teachers at the Junior High. I know I can and will develop such relationships in my new site (and hopefully much stronger ones besides), but it will take time.
So, I am trading out conveniences and familiarity for a new experience, yet again. I think I'm getting a good deal out of this trade, though. If I am able to dig into the social life and work of my new community, I'm sure I will hardly notice giving up a few comforts. Except the heat. I get cranky in the heat. Oh well... here goes!

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Wisdom to Know the Difference

Those who know me well know I struggle with decisions. I do not take them lightly. I am sometimes *ahem* overly distraught by choosing my entree at a restaurant. I changed my major multiple times during college. I sometimes devote more time to making a decision than it takes to actually carry out said decision. I have been accused of paralysis by analysis.

Last Thursday I made the decision to leave my site in Sololá and move to a new site. I went through a long discernment process filled with many conversations with family, friends near and far, and Peace Corps support staff. Now, I have determined that my best chance to find what I consider to be success as a volunteer lies elsewhere.

I could write a laundry list of justifications, of things that went wrong and ways I tried to remedy the situation. I could talk about problems with my host organization (which has dissolved), with my counterpart, with my host family, with integration into the community as a whole. But, with exceptions where a safety issue arises suddenly, I think these cases tend to come out of a long accumulation of struggles and trials. Any one of these problems might be surmountable, but the aggregation of them has worn me down to the point that I must choose a new path. I have not exhausted all the opportunities in this site, but I have exhausted my own ability to pursue them.

The past several months have seen me move between emotional states of determination, enthusiasm, stubbornness, disappointment, desperation, hopefulness, stress, apathy, frustration, relief, confusion, exhaustion, and many more. There have been small victories and occasional connections with those in the community. The overall trend was moving slowly toward cynicism and resignation. At some point I realized that as much as it was tempting to stick it out here to prove I could, that was a path that didn't serve me, the community, or the Peace Corps well.

I joined the Peace Corps to learn and to teach, to share and receive, to join a community and to serve where I am able.  Before I can do any of these things well, I have to care for myself. There is a reason the flight attendants tell us to first secure our own oxygen mask before helping those around us. Next week I will move to a new site in the department of Alta Verapaz. This is my way of reaching for the oxygen mask.

God, grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Dia de la Madre

In Guatemala, Mother's Day is officially May 10. In the U.S., I feel like the day is mostly a celebration between each set of mother and child. Younger kids usually do some sort of Mother's Day craft project at school to take home, but generally it's something kept within the family.

Not so, here. Since the holiday is on a specific date, it often does not fall on a Sunday.  In fact, even were it to fall during a weekend, the schools would pick the nearest weekday to have their Dia de la Madre events.

Down in town at the junior high school, classes were suspended all week long. I learned this after attempting to teach one class Monday afternoon and then realizing that none of the other teachers were holding class. Upon talking to the director, I learned that there was just too much bulla (racket) for it to be worth trying to work.

The reason this turned into a week long situation is that in the school building where I help out, there are actually three separate school institutions. Each school wanted to have a separate Mother's Day celebration, so they each signed up for a different day to use the main salón (auditorium, in this case).  Now, that could have knocked out three days, but they also need days off from school to plan the activities.

On Tuesday morning I wandered up to the primary school here in my aldea to check out the festivities, and normal classes were cancelled for the day. For the first few hours the kids were just running around playing while the sound system was set up and the community gathered. By 10 a.m. things really got rolling, as a basketball tournament began between the mothers in town. Between games there was a raffle with prizes that only mothers could win. Throughout it all there was nonstop pontificating coming from the large sound system as the microphone was handed around between various community leaders who spoke in a hybrid of Spanish and K'iche' praising women and motherhood.

Watching the women play, I was impressed with how committed to the game the women were, despite mostly being dressed in their dress shoes and traditional cortefaja, and guipil outfit, which is just not conducive to exercise. The bulk of them clearly had not played before (or at least not since Mother's Day last year), but they ran with enthusiasm and hacked at each other like fouling was their job. I later learned that the winning team of the tournament would win Q200, so maybe that accounts for some of the intensity. Mostly, I just loved seeing the women who are usually so shy and retiring (some would say submissive) out there being aggressive and laughing as they ran around in front of their whole community.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

There and Back

Last fall I wrote a post about the bus system here in Guatemala, but the truth is that here in site I only get on a bus if I am heading to do a day trip for shopping at the nearest grocery stores (either an hour East or and hour West).

Most days, if I leave my aldea it is to go to the nearest municipalidad where I teach classes in the junior high school and take K'iche' lessons. To get there, I just head down to the highway and hop into the back of a pick up truck. 2 quetzales (about $0.25) and five to forty minutes later, I'm deposited downtown. The variation in time really just comes down to how quickly the truck fills up, or the driver gets bored enough to leave even without a full truck bed. Some days the drivers will head off with only four passengers, and others they will pack upwards of thirty people into a truck.

For safety, the Peace Corps likes us to sit up front in the cab with a seatbelt, or to sit as near the cab as possible if travelling in the back of a truck. I confess, I didn't go for the cab much in the first several months here -- it was more fun to have the wind in my face, and it made me feel more like a local to clamber in the back with the kids headed to school or the women headed to market. Eventually I did sit up a few times, and found the drivers are pretty friendly. Most of them learned who I was early on and will make sure to call out to me when they are heading back to my aldea if I seem too lost in thought to realize I'm walking past my ride home on the street. Which, come to think of it, is pretty often.

Now that the rainy season is getting under way, I have an extra motivation to slip into the cab. The drivers usually whip out tarps to strap over the metal frame over the truck bed (those that have them). This means getting wet isn't too much of a problem, thankfully, but it's irritating when it does happen. If I do end up in the back while it's covered, I sit near the tailgate so I can see out the back and get plenty of fresh air.  They like to pack us in, both people and belongings, and I want to avoid motion sickness as much as possible.

This is a Tuk Tuk.... somewhere between a golf cart and a tricycle.  
The one other option for hitching a ride somewhere is in a tuk tuk. These are far more expensive, and honestly slower, except that they will leave when you want rather than needing to wait on a full truck. They'll also go wherever asked, while the trucks have their specific route. I've probably only ridden in a tuk tuk two or three times in Guatemala. They are fun to see in some of the bigger areas, though. Some get tricked out with flashing lights, music, and a disco ball.

Last weekend my host family gave me a ride home from Xela (nearest city to the East), and I had almost forgotten what it is like to ride in a normal car. Benancio was driving and commented that he's not as good at parking as he used to be, because he's getting out of practice. I wonder just how it will feel to drive for the first time again after two years of being shuttled around by others. It's wonderful I can get around so well without a car here, but it will be a fun feeling to come and go more or less when and where I please again, eventually.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

A Little Escapism

Photo taken on my camera by friend Nicholi.  Nice shot, dude!

Last weekend another Volunteer had two friends from the States visiting, and three of us decided to jump on board their party for the weekend. We went zip lining down by Lake Atitlán, and had a blast. Money may not be able to buy happiness, but it can buy distraction, and that was just what I needed at the time. Now and again it's nice to play tourist and break out of the routine before heading back to site.