Monday, February 20, 2012

Charting a New Course

"You need a plan ... but don't become consumed by it. Winds change."
  -- Joseph Ehrhard 

In mid-January I was in planning mode. I met with the school director in my village to plan for the start of the school year. I outlined my six month plan to cover nutrition with my women's groups. I was anticipating the changeover of half the board of directors in the cooperative, hopefully providing an opening to work with the Agriculture Committee. I was contemplating starting a weekly Junior Master Gardener group and a GLOW camp (Girls Leading Our World) for Holy Week. I was plotting how to best use the rest of my vacation time.

As often seems to be the case in life, and in the Peace Corps in particular, events have torn my best laid plans to shreds. 

The Powers That Be came to Peace Corps Guatemala. After an urgent text message and email, volunteers from all over Guatemala assembled at an All Volunteer Conference in Quetzaltenango (aka Xela) in what felt like a tortuously slow motion scramble. 

Representatives from the national Peace Corps office in DC came and explained in compelling detail that crime and safety are of serious concern in the Northern Triangle of Central America, which has been called the "deadliest non-war zone in the world" (Christian Science Monitor). Surveys of Peace Corps Volunteers in Guatemala show disturbing trends in volunteers' sense of safety and rates of being a victim to crime. They explained that Congress was asking the Peace Corps pretty pointedly, "What are you doing in Central America?" 

We learned that PC Guatemala is not going to be shut down, but that major changes are on the horizon to manage risk here. The number of volunteers in Guatemala must be reduced drastically and immediately. Those scheduled to leave in March will leave in February. Those scheduled to leave in July will leave in March. Everyone in the country may take an early Close of Service should they choose to do so. The remaining volunteers in country will be condensed into the Central Western Highlands.

Since I live in Alta Verapaz (not in the Central Western Highlands), I was given the choice to either take the early COS or take a site change. Again.

At first the hardest thing to swallow was that I was among the volunteers who had to move. Sure, Guatemala is dangerous. Sure, the murder rate is startlingly high and the impunity from prosecution is sickening. But I feel safe in my site. Everyone knows me. It's a tiny place. I rarely leave my village, and when I do I have access to tourism shuttles and relatively safe bus lines. I spent several days in denial, mentally bargaining for an exception. Surely I could stay here to finish out my service. It took a sympathetic but firm response from my Country Director before I accepted that there was no Option C. I had to choose between going home and going to a new community within Guatemala.

I chose the Peace Corps as my means of volunteering abroad for many reasons, but a huge one was that it allowed me to spend two full years in a community. I felt that in sustainable development, it was important to commit to being somewhere long enough to really know the people, recognize the needs, and take the time to do things well. Having already taken a site change when my initial site placement did not pan out, another would mean my 27 months would end up being 3 months of training, seven months in Solola, ten months in Alta Verapaz, and then seven more months in an unknown location. That sounded exhausting, ineffective, and frustrating.

Yet, I didn't immediately close that door. I wanted to know what the site change might mean. I thought maybe I could be placed somewhere a little more like a job than the usual Peace Corps location. Maybe I could work with an international organization that already had a program in place and just needed help carrying it out. Perhaps I could spend the rest of my service solidifying my Spanish skills and getting a new flavor of work experience.

Once I got back to site, I tried to imagine a new path for myself in Guatemala. I couldn't muster much excitement for it. Going to a new site would overshadow the rest of my time in Alta and likely mean leaving my current site sooner than a COS would. Site development is a complex process even when not rushed, and there was no guaruntee of being sent somewhere I could hit the ground running, or even walking. Going to a site focused on something specific I wanted to get out of the experience rather than on what I could learn and then contribute seemed like a recipe for disappointment. It also runs contradictory to my approach to Peace Corps. A site change felt like a big gamble, but somehow I kept trying to talk myself into taking it. Somehow because I was more apprehensive about staying in Guatemala than going back to the US it felt like that was the bolder, better, or braver choice. Mostly I couldn't let go of my plan of serving my 27 months and finishing out with the rest of my training group.

I realized that what was holding me here was pretty much pure stubbornness, and that made the decision. On February 1, I called my program director and told him I am heading to the States at the end of March. Time to close out this life chapter as best I can and to look inside for what I will bring to the next.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Soap [Success]

Months ago, a group of women in another aldea (village) asked that my site mate and I teach them to make soap. We agreed, and went through a series of hygiene charlas (talks, trainings, activities...) with them as we did the research to teach ourselves how to make it and how to manage the logistics of doing it with them in their community.

At first we gathered the supplies and tried doing it on our own to iron out any kinks in the process. Good thing, too, because we were going based on phoned in advice from another volunteer, and something crucial was lost in the process and our soap did not turn out. At all.

So we jumped through some hoops to import our very own soap making expert volunteer to show us how it was done. It turned out that we'd done everything right, but just needed to stir a little faster, and voila! Success!

Day 1:  Boil 5 gallons water.  Mix it with 5 gallons used oil (we bought from a fried chicken place).  Add 7 bottles of lye.  Mix rapidly stirring only clockwise for one to three hours, until the mixture is thick enough that it doesn't drip off your stirring stick when it is pulled out.  Cover the mixture, let it set for 24 hours in a cool dry location.

Our cautionary warnings of wearing protective materials (left) 
and the steps to make soap on the first day (right).

Our host, Maria, all suited up to take her turn at stirring.

I stirred with another woman, so she could get the idea of the speed and rhythm needed.

My site mate whipping up the mixture toward the end of the process.

Our soap, left to set up over night.

Day 2:  Uncover the soap and pour off any excess oil that remains in the mixture. If the soap set hard, cut it into bars/chunks and wrap them in newspaper.  If the soap remains like a cookie dough texture, ball it up and wrap it in newspaper.  Leave wrapped in a cool, dry location for 4-6 weeks to cure.

It felt wonderful to finally be able to deliver on our promise. To successfully make it through the two day soap making process while teaching in Q'eqchi'. And, to share a bit of our site with a friend from training.