Monday, December 14, 2009

Bella Belice

The beach at Placencia.

One of my best friends in Peace Corps and I had been talking about taking a trip to another Central American country during the winter vacations. We had our hopes set on Nicaragua, but had to re-think our plans because of political instability in Honduras (which we would have to pass through). So we set our sights closer to home, north to Belize and started scheming about Caribbean beaches.

Previous to leaving for Belize, I decided to visit one of Guatemala's most-renowned natural sites-- Semúc Champey, for Thanksgiving. This is a series of turquoise limestone pools set in a ravine of jungle-blanketed mountains in the eastern part of the country, Alta Verapaz. It competes with Lake Atitlán for the title of “most beautiful place in Guatemala”-- but I had yet to go. So I arranged with two other friends to spend Thanksgiving there.

Our first full day at Semúc, Thanksgiving Day, we arranged for a guide through our hotel to take us spelunking, tubing, hiking and exploring the pools. First, he led us through a series of nearby limestone caves, where we waded through the river that carved the caves. The only lights we had were candles, and at times we had to swim for stretches holding a candle above the water. We had to climb up rope ladders and at one point slide though a little chute with water gushing through it to get to a lower point. The caves were beautiful, with stalagmites and stalactites and bats hanging silently above, and no one has been able determine how many miles deep they continue. After the caves, we did a short hike to a beautiful waterfall, which the bravest of us 3 (not me) jumped off of into the deep pool below. Then we tubed our way back down the river, and started the walk up to the limestone pools. Instead of going directly to the pools we did the very steep but short hike up to the mirador (look-out) to see the full view of the terraces of 20+ bright pools, nestled like jewels into the green ravine below. Then we spent what was left of the day splashing around in the pools. That night, we ate at a local comedor (eatery) where we had a Thanksgiving dinner of beans, cheese, tortillas and eggs-- perhaps not the most glamorous Thanksgiving meal I'll ever have, but the day made it worth it. The next day we went back just to enjoy the pools, and passed the time swimming and singing and goofing off.

From there, I went back to the city of Cobán, to meet my friend Amanda who would be traveling to Belize with me. The next day we made the10 hour bus trip up to Flores, the northern city on a lake near the famous Mayan ruins in the jungle, Tikal (which I still have not seen, and there was no time for it on this trip). We spent a night in Flores, then took a 5-hour shuttle trip the next day to Belize City.

Immediately after entering Belize it became abundantly clear that we were not in Guatemala anymore. Guatemala for the most part is a fairly homogeneous-looking country with two main ethnic groups, Latinos and Maya Indigenous (but Latinos by definition are mixed European and Mayan decent, and almost none of the Indigenous peoples are 100% Indigenous anymore, so the ethnic lines between the two groups are pretty blurry). Belize, however, is made up of a blend of different cultures-- Creole (the most predominant), Maya Indigenous, Latino, Garífuna (descendants of slaves who have their own language, music and traditional dances-- there is also a small population in Guatemala), and other pockets of Asians and Europeans. The official language is English, but Creole and Spanish are also widely-spoken. The Creole language shares a lot of English vocabulary and structure, but the strong accent makes it difficult for a native English-speaker to understand. The music on all the buses was also very different, mostly reggae or reggae-pop or old blues songs (which, although I love my Guatemala camioneta music, was a refreshing change).

Unfortunately, we didn't do much in Belize City besides get dinner because of the many warnings we received that it wasn't safe to walk around at night. But the next day we left early for the 45 minute ferry ride to Caye Caulker (“caye” = key, as in Florida Keys). Caye Caulker was a beautiful island with a quaint town on the Caribbean. The waters around it are the gorgeous teal color that you image in the Caribbean. The Caye was dotted with cute cafés and mom-and-pop dive and snorkeling businesses and was pervaded by the laid-back, take-it-slow mentality. We spent the first day just walking around the Caye, meeting locals (mostly Creole) and sitting on the dock to soak-up the sun (the only down-side is there is no real beach on the Caye). We also enjoyed rum-juice drinks for happy hour as we watched the sun set at the point (with ocean views on each side) and socialized with locals.

Caye Caulker.

Hotel at Caye Caulker, decked out for Christmas.

The next day we took a full-day sailing and snorkeling trip to the nearby barrier reef (second largest in the world). The coral shimmering under the water was beautiful, and we saw abundant sea-life-- sharks, an eel, sting-rays, a small octopus, lots of tropical fish, and sea turtles. We were served rum-juice and ceviché as we sailed back to the Caye while the sun began to set, and I shared good conversation with one of our guides, Rafael. That night we went to the bar at the point again, where we met some locals at a bonfire, the most interesting of which was “Coconut Man” who never gave us another name but referred to himself always in the third-person (as “Coconut Man”) and danced crazily around the fire to the reggae music.

With Coconut Man.

The following day we left Caye Caulker for another very long and hot bus ride south to Placencia, a beautiful beach-town. Placencia is gorgeous, and though it has more of a local-residency than the touristy Caye Caulker, it was also more built-up in a way with nicer businesses and nearby resorts. We stayed at the cheapest place, which had cute little rooms right on the beach. We came to Placencia with one purpose in mind-- to lay on the beach and soak up the sun (with some swimming in the ocean as well), and that's pretty much what we did for three beautiful days. We did go sea-kayaking once, and we spent some of our time walking around town and making daily trips to the amazing Italian-run gelatto place. And for meals we indulged in delicious fresh seafood-- conch fritters and snapper and lobster and shrimp, washed down with plenty of Belikin beer (thankfully much better than the Guatemalan beer, Gallo). But the vast majority of the time we simply lay in the sun.

A cool fan-like palm tree in front of our hotel, on the beach, in Placencia.

Getting pickled at the Pickled Parrot.

Sunset at Placencia.

The only damper on our sunny days in Placencia was the ceaseless harassment from the local boys. The tourist season had just begun and we were two single girls on our own, unaccompanied by a guy. These proved to be major disadvantages, since there are many local guys who seem to have nothing better to do than spend their days and nights combing the beaches for foreign girls to hit on. Our first day we were friendly enough, interested in meeting new people but tried to make it clear we weren't looking for romance. That night we went to the local bar to hear some live reggae music, but the attention was overwhelming and relentless. We primarily ended up talking to two guys, who clearly had in mind pairing-up with each of us. And they didn't give up for the rest of our time in Placencia, even though we time and again tried to make it clear that wasn't going to happen.

The guy interested in me, Antoine, was somewhat reasonable, and interesting to talk to, and he would leave us alone when I asked him to outright. But the guy interested in Amanda, Carl, was simply crazy. I have no better or more PC way to describe him. Amanda politely but firmly told him on our second day, that no she didn't want to hang out with him and no she wasn't digging it. But the message clearly did not sink in, and the next morning he stood outside our window shouting Amanda's name (while we were still sleeping). When I eventually went outside and found them both sitting on the beach in front of our hotel (Amanda was still sleeping), I got angry and told Carl outright that she didn't want to see him or hang out and to leave us alone. He still didn't seem to get what I was saying; he just thought I was angry with him and that Amanda would feel differently. Antoine also told me that Carl had told him that I had asked to see him, and for that reason he came with Carl (I guess Carl was hoping for power in numbers), but I explained to Antoine the situation and asked him to speak to Carl. For the rest of that day he seemed to back off, either because of my intervention or Antoine's. But the next day he was hanging out around our hotel again, so we spent the day taking long walks on the beach and sea-kayaking. And after the first night, we didn't make another appearance at the local bars.

Overall it was just unfortunate and a little stressful feeling like we had to avoid people, especially for Amanda (even though I do believe these guys were basically harmless). And by the end we were being blatantly mean and unfriendly to the many guys that approached us on the beach, since we learned the hard way that friendliness doesn't work.

Our second evening there (and one of our best), we were lucky to fall into an altogether different sort of crowd. We went to a tapas-like restaurant where we heard some young Latino guys singing and playing guitar with a couple of middle-aged men. They were playing classic Spanish songs, which stirred up my inner-Latina, and I finally worked up the courage to request a song, which thrilled and surprised them (that I could speak Spanish and knew all the words). I ended up staying with them, enjoying the music and singing along, while Amanda met some other gentlemen. I started chatting with one of the middle-aged men, who turned out to be from Guatemala City and very... how do I say this, um... wealthy. He is on the board of trustees for the most prestigious private school in Guatemala. But mostly he was very interested in what we're doing for the Peace Corps and my love of Guatemala and spoke of helping me get scholarships for some of my more promising students. Mostly, it was nice to hear open appreciation for what we're doing for the Peace Corps, because sometimes it feels like the people in our towns don't understand all we gave up to do this, so it's nice to hear sometimes. The other middle-aged man singing along was his Guatemalan captain for his private sailboat, who was rather taken with me and serenaded me to classic Spanish songs (changing the words to make them about me). His boss from Guatemala City was there with some American friends and business associates that we befriended, and their friendly (platonic) company and intelligent conversation was a refreshing change from the relentless overtly sexual come-ons from the local boys. So that restaurant became our hang-out for the next couple nights and added a different element to our Belize experience.

With our friend from Guatemala City.

Being serenaded by the Capitán.

Overall, despite some small annoyances, Belize was the perfect get-away and Amanda the ideal travel-companion, and we had so many laughs, even over our little, um, adventures. I thought I would be missing sunny beaches and the sound of the waves and delicious seafood as soon as I got back, but the truth is, it feels good to be in my beloved little village, in my own beautiful room after more than 2 weeks away (I was furthered delayed by asthma-related medical issues). Sometimes it takes leaving for a while to remember, but I am so blessed to be living this life.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Godmother (La Madrina)

In Guatemala, the school year runs roughly from mid-January until mid-October. I say roughly because everyone-- teachers, principals and students-- are kept in mystery as to the actual start and end dates until the absolute last minute because the Ministry of Education is so disorganized. For example, this year I was teaching on a Wednesday and no one could tell me if that very week or the next would be the last week of school for the year. I wasn't sure if I should say good-bye to my students or keep teaching the theme (sex-ed). (Fortunately, I did get one more week to wrap up and say good-bye properly).

As the end of the school year approached, some of the girls from my girls' group let slip to me that the graduating students had selected me to be one of their “padrinos” for the graduation. The padrinos (which literally means godparents) are usually favorite teachers that the students choose to be guests of honor at the ceremony. The padrinos in return give a small memento to all the students, sometimes make a speech and hand out the diplomas. I was very flattered to have been selected because it is a big institute with a big staff, and I only get two periods a week for my class (other teachers have 4-5 periods). I also did a farewell activity with the students on the last day of class, in which we each wrote our name on a blank piece of paper and exchanged papers to write farewell/good-luck messages for each other. They obviously don't have yearbooks, so I thought it might be an almost-substitute. I participated with the oldest, graduating grade, to whom I feel the closest. The messages I received were overwhelmingly positive and sweet. Many wrote that I was their favorite teacher. All the hard work I'd put into preparing my classes and all the struggles I've encountered as a foreigner trying to teach in this rural community suddenly felt very worth it.

I wanted to make the graduation special, and I'd been thinking of getting my own full traje (traditional outfit) for a while. I already had a traditional blouse (güipil) that I'd bought at Lake Atitlán-- white, covered with tiny stitched birds in blue and purple. I decided to buy a corte (the long colorful wrap skirt) and faja (sash) to complete the outfit. In my 15 months in my village, people had frequently asked when I would use traje. I did wear a modified version for the September 15th parade, but this time I wanted the real thing. So the president of the girls' group, and my good friend, Célida went with me on market day to help me pick out the corte. Cortes are not cheap (at least for Guatemala)-- they cost between $35-$200. We found a pretty mid-range one that is violet with darker shades of purple and black throughout. Her mother did the measurements and adjustments for me, and Célida washed and stitched details into my güipil. Another neighbor picked out a faja for me (a shiny bright pink thing that I probably wouldn't have chosen). And on graduation night, my host sister Lidia wrapped the corte around me, adjusting it several times so that it was the perfect length and the folds were crisp and centered.

The traje is not comfortable. The corte is a few yards in length and made of a very thick blend of many colored woven threads. When on, you are wearing several layers of this material (wrapped around multiple times), and even more around the waste where the wrap is folded under to adjust the length. My güipil is made out of a thick canvas material and covered in heavy embroidery. The faja, being the only thing to keep your corte up, is wrapped extremely tightly around your waste and tucked-in, restricting your breathing. I felt like I was wearing a tightly-cinched corset (although later some female students tested the tightness of it by seeing if they could fit their pinkie beneath it, which they could, unlike on their own... so Lidia went easy on me). To top off the discomfort, I wore high-heels for the first time since arriving in Guatemala, so it took some practice tottering around in all this. I kept thinking about how the woman do everything-- from tending the fields to hauling firewood to playing sports-- wearing the traje. I had a hard enough time walking a bit, sitting and standing in it.

Nonetheless, everyone thought I looked “muy linda” (lovely), and also, apparently, “muy sexy” because I have never gotten so many whistles and cat-calls as when I walked to the auditorium for the ceremony... which I privately found funny because the heavy, unrevealing outfit is not in the least “sexy” in American terms.

During the ceremony, the other three padrinos insisted that I be their representative and make the speech... which went relatively well considering how much I hate public speaking, especially in Spanish. I also helped to hand out diplomas (making sure I got my girl's group's), and posed with students for endless pictures. I had been a bit dispirited that the ceremony was scheduled on Halloween (which fell on a Saturday) because most of my volunteer friends were in costume at fun parties, but during the ceremony I forgot about it and had a good time. And I was in costume, in a way.

After the ceremony with the all-female parent directive and the director (think it's a pretty rare thing to have a female parent directive in rural Guatemala, usually it's all men. Some day hopefully we'll see one with men AND women, together.)

My girls (plus a boyfriend), and graduates.

I had invited the graduates on a hike for the following day up to the mountain as a despedida (farewell). On the top of the ridge that shoulders the town, you can see gorgeous views of the sweeping corn fields, speckled with little houses below and the surrounding hills, on either side, and there are a couple of open areas for playing soccer or other games. A good amount of students showed up (around 35) and more than half were boys (it's usually hard to get the boys to come because they're always worried it'll be a “girl thing”). We sat around and chatted for while, then I taught them Capture the Flag and we played a couple exciting rounds in the forest. It was one of the best days of my service (though I seem to be saying that more often lately). In the end, I had a great relationship with those kids, and I'm gonna miss their faces in my classes. It was an honor to be their madrina.

At the giant letters, on the mountain, with students.

Friday, October 23, 2009

From Camp to Club to Garden

(Please note- those of you who are on facebook, the post below is verbatim for the Note I already posted, to spare you from reading it twice!)

As some of you may recall, last winter during the three month school vacations, I decided to put on a sports, art and community service camp for some of the girl students in my community. I had noticed that in my classes, the girls were much quieter and more self-consciouss than the boys, and whenever I saw kids playing sports around town, they were usually only boys. I hoped that in putting on this camp, I could help to build the girls' self-confidence and solidarity between them. I also hoped that in accomplishing a service project in the community, the girls would see their own leadership potential, and other community members would recognize it as well. I shared my idea with friends and family members in the US, and they responded by promptly sending their generous donations to make it all possible.

The camp was very exhausting, but a great success. I was impressed by the turn-out (some days, as many as 20 girls), especially because it was harvest time and many of the girls were needed to help in the fields. We had so much fun, and the girls decided to extend the two week camp to three. As part of the camp, we did a community diagnostic and identified a service project. The girls were immediately captivated by the idea of a community garden. They were passionate about creating a green space of beauty in the community. I knew that the garden would not be something we could accomplish in the time-frame of the camp, but the girls agreed to form a club to continue the project.

After the camp, the most dedicated girls continued to meet with me about once a month (the most frequently we were able to) to continue to plan the garden. It was a very long process, whose steps included: meeting with the local authorities to determine if planting a garden in a public space was feasible, meeting with the principal when we decided on the school as our location, designing a garden that we could afford, creating a budget, creating a plan for the ongoing maintenance of the garden, making a field trip to visit a greenhouse in the nearest city (almost 2 hours away) to see the plants available, formally presenting our idea and plans to the teachers to gain their support, and securing transportation to bring the plants from the greenhouse. (We also spent a good deal of time chatting and just goofing off.)

We were held up by many factors, including finding a location for the garden, the teachers' contention that there wasn't enough space in the school courtyard, the girls frequently forgetting when we had meetings planned, my inability to always meet because of Peace Corps functions and other activities, and the girls' shy hesitation to ask a community member to provide transportation for us.

But at last, almost 10 months later, we planted our garden. To see more photos of the planting and learn more about it, check out this link to my facebook album titled "The story of a garden": I have never seen such incredible hard workers as these girls. They got up at 5:30 am on Sunday to dig up soil and haul it, load after load, to the school. Then they met again in the afternoon and worked until long after dark in the pouring rain, breaking the earth, shoveling soil, laying grass, and planting the flowers, then got up at 5:30 am again the next day to finish the job. I could see how much this garden meant to these girls, particularly the club's president who was not able to continue her education after middle school for financial reason. For her, I believe this project of the garden has brought a new purpose into her life. It was a joy to see their satisfaction and happiness to have completed it.

Of course, the story of the garden and club is not finished yet. School vacations are about to begin once more, and we will all be on a rotational schedule to water and tend the garden each day for the next three months. When school starts again, we will have to implement our plan to maintain the garden with the help of the student council. I hope that we can make presentations in all of the classrooms about the garden and how it came about, to discourage students from littering in the garden (a problem I have already seen) and from cutting/damaging the flowers.
As far as the girls, they have already told me that they hope to keep meeting, so that we can do other activities on a smaller scale, such as cooking classes, sports and art projects, as well as just hanging out. (Hopefully I can work in some health topics and information about obtaining scholarships as well.) My work with them as been one of the most rewarding experiences of my Peace Corps service thusfar. I deeply admire their spirit, their strength, their kindness and their sense of humor, and I have learned a lot from them.

I want to thank all of you who believed in me and made this possible with your contributions. It is a testament to your genoristy that we were able to hold a three week camp as well as plant a garden with the funds you gave. It has meant a lot to me... and so much to these outstanding Guatemalan girls. Wish you could meet them to see it for yourselves, but please take my word for it.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

El Último Quince * The Last Fifteenth

Normally, the days here seem to grind slowly by, but the monthly calendar pages seem to fly off the walls. There are moments, however, when I am deeply struck by the passage of time here, certain landmarks when it becomes more apparent how long I have been here and how my place in the community has changed.

Approaching the “Quince de Septiembre” (15th of September), Guatemala´s Independence Day as well as my town´s biggest celebration, was one such landmark. A year ago, I was a struggling new teacher, grappling with my Spanish, still a bit insecure in the community, still a specktacle everywhere I went, still trying to figure out if this whole Peace Corps thing was a good idea. This time around, I am an accomplished and respected teacher that is wrapping up a complete school year working with the 400 students of the town's middle school. Almost everyone in this large community knows my name, and everywhere I go people stop to chat with me. People maybe make a bit more of a fuss over me than other community members, but generally I am seen as just that: another community member. I have my accepted place here, and I am content.

The Quince celebrations started to manifest themselves at the beginning of September with the appearance of more street vendors, “arcades” set up in temporary wooden structures on the street (one, conveniently, directly below my window which would blast music daily from 10 a.m.-10 p.m.), and the constant background of band practice as they all prepared for the big parade and various band competitions. And of course, frequent cancellations of classes due to practices for the parade. This year I was put in charge of “batonistas”, the baton twirlers, though they really just hold the baton. The fact that I know nothing about baton twirling was made irrelevant by the fact that neither did any of the girls.

The Veladas

But the real activities began for me September 7, with the “velada” for the town central primary school. “Veladas” are the big activity in my Indigenous village (though I´m not sure how common they are nation-wide). These are a cultural event meets beauty pageant meets talent show meets school dance. They are put on by all the local schools in the town´s event center.

This year my little seven-year-old host sister had been selected as the “Queen of Sports” for her school, basically a beauty queen, so she would be one of the stars of the show (along with the “Queen of Peace”). Part of this meant that half the community would be turning up at our house during the day of the event for a free lunch provided by the family. Starting the day before, many female relatives and friends of my host family turned up to help out with the food preparation, so the whole downstairs was transformed into a chicken-chopping, tamalito-making, bean-soaking factory. I tried to help but felt like I was mostly getting in the way. Still, I did enjoy the women's company and playful teasing.

The evening of the event, the little girl underwent about two hours of hair styling and then another hour of putting-on and readjusting of the special “traje” they had bought (and spent thousands of quetzales on), and anxious waiting with the other “queen” and “knights” and “ladies-in-waiting” that would participate. During the event, (after the flag-bearers have entered and the national anthem has been sung and many greetings and welcomings given by important people), the out-going Queen of Sports enters, and does a slow step down a long platform toward the stage, accompanied by marimba music, with the audience crowded on either side, as the announcer shares facts such as her name, age, grade, etc. Then the many “ladies-in-waiting” (of varying sizes), slowly enter one-by-one, sometimes accompanied by one of the knights, as the announcer shares her information. Once the whole “Royal Court” (they seriously call it that) is seated on the stage, at last the new Queen of Sports enters, accompanied by her knight, and does the dance-step down the aisle to the marimba. Once the new Queen of Sports is seated on the stage, last year´s Qeen of Peace enters, then the next “Royal Court”, then finally the new Queen of Peace. (As I said, there are two queens, each with an out-going queen and a royal court.) All this entering takes a long time, as you can imagine.

The queen and her royal court.

Entering with her knight.

Then the out-going Queen of Sports gets up an makes a long gracious speech, almost unfailingly about the dangers of drugs and delinquency and the importance of education. Then she gives her crown and sash to the new Queen of Sports, receives a diploma (Guatemalans are absolutely crazy about diplomas), and makes her slow exit down the platform. Then the new Queen of Sports approaches and gives her speech (usually about the same afore-mentioned themes). Then her knight comes forward and recites a poem about her astonishing beauty and grace and gives her a flower. Then she says her gracious thanks and gives him a diploma and they sit back down. Then we see all this again for the Queens of Peace (the out-going and the in-coming). Then, we see the long, slow return (one-by-one) of the ladies-in-waiting and knights and queens.

The whole queen business takes a couple of hours and is the “meat” of the velada. Every school in the community had a velada in the week leading up to the 15th, so there was one almost nightly (though I skipped most of them). None of them vary in their content or process: they each had two queens, two exiting queens, two royal courts, and follow basically the same script. (The biggest variance is in the size of the queens, depending on if it´s for the primary school, middle school, or the general community velada.) And still, the community turns up in flocks to see it all. I must be becoming quite Guatemalan myself because I really wasn't that bored in the two I attended.

Besides all the queen stuff, there are intermittent talent-show acts, which usually include skits or plays, traditional folklore dances, and grinding dance routines in very skimpy outfits to popular reggaetón songs (reggaetón is the latino hip-hop and usually the songs are very explicitly sexual in nature-- very interesting to see these dance routines in a rural Indigenous town where the women usually don´t show more skin than a bit of bare arm and bare ankle). Then when all the formal performances and queen stuff is over, the lights go dark and space is cleared for a social dance.

La Torcha

On the day of my Institute's velada, I participated in another school tradition. About 90 students went on a field trip to a hot springs park, and I went as one of the chaperones. The main purpose of the trip was the bring “la torcha” to town. This is a tradition where groups of students run with lit torches from a distant point to the center of town, arriving in the evening to a cheering crowd, as a kick-off for the festitivites.

"Swimming" at the hot springs. (We actually just waded. None of the kids can swim.)

But during the day, we just enjoyed ourselves at the park. It was a funny place that probably wouldn´t make for an impressive field trip in the U.S., but we had a good time. There were basketball courts and a sheltered soccer court (of course), and hot-spring fed pools, and bathing rooms... pretty much all favorite Guatemalan pasttimes. I spent time in the pools splashing around and playing ball with the students and trying to teach them how to swim. I also entered in one of the bathing rooms with some female students. That probably sounds really inappropriate, but bathing together is a common Indigenous Guatemalan practice with people you are close to (and these were mostly girls from my girls´ group and neighbors), and we stayed pretty much fully clothed. After that, because I had brought my camera, many students wanted to have photo shoots (getting their picture taken is a rare and special occassion). Then we piled into the bus and headed home.

Posing in a photo shoot with some of the boys.

About an hour's drive from town, we began the torch run. We did it in groups of about 10 students, attempting to run a couple miles. When a group got tired, they got back on the bus and another group got out to take over. Of course, the timing was ill-planned, so we all ended up getting into the bus and driving a good chunk of the distance in order to make it to the town center on time. Still, as we approached the end, everyone got out and ran together for a couple miles, chanting school slogans, and cheered on by townspeople lining the streets. Once we reached the town square, we threw all the torches into a big bonfire, did a lot more chanting and shouting, and set off fireworks. Then we all rushed home to quickly get ready for the Institute's velada, which would begin in a half hour.

The torch run, as seen from the bus.

My institute´s velada was all the content described above, but I enjoyed it a lot more, mostly because I know all the students that were participating and I got to watch it with the rest of the students and enjoy their company. I also magically escaped having to make a speech before the entire community, as I did the previous year. (Maybe not so magical... I avoided sitting on the stage with the other important people, and by the time it occurred to the principal that I should make a speech, he probably couldn´t find me.) So I actually got to enjoy myself. The social dance afterwards was also fun. My policy had been no-dancing-with-students, but after turning down about 5 of them, I finally caved in and danced with one. All the other teachers do here and no one seems to take it too seriously. It´s also just bopping back and forth to music, hands barely touching, with a good foot of distance between you, so probably not a big deal. I also danced with the handsome young man that works in my host family's hardware store. All in all, it was one of the best days of my service, mostly because I simply enjoy my students' company so much and it was good to spend time with them apart from the teacher role.

La Noche del Catorce

As much as I was enjoying the festitivities in my town, I was also itching to partake in the festivities elsewhere, in Xela. As in my town, the Independence Day festivities coincide with the nearby city of Xela's main town festival. The celebrations in Xela are nationally famous as the best Independence Day celebrations. The night of the 14th of September is the culmination of all of this. The streets flood with people for miles, famous bands play for free throughout the city, and the bars and discotecas stay open all night. I went in during the day on the 14th to do errands, but I couldn´t help feeling a little sad that I wouldn't be able to stay the night (especially because a big group of other volunteers would be there to celebrate) because I had to meet at 7 the next morning for my town's parade. Finally, out of last-minute desperation, I talked to a taxi driver about taking me to my town early the next morning, and he stated a reasonable price. So I ended up staying.

With friends in our hole-in-the-wall bar, pre-partying before going to the free concerts.

And it was a good time. We started out in the Central Park, which was flooded with people and had some small bands and parades going on. We moved on to our favorite hole-in-the-wall bar, and from there to where the more famous bands were playing for free. The music was great, the venue packed body-to-body with Guatemalans. When the concert finished, we headed to the discoteca to dance. Unfortunatley, I started to get tired because I was recovering from being sick, so I did head back to the hotel at around 3 a.m. to snatch a little sleep before my 5 a.m. taxi.

El Quince

I expected to be completely exhausted, but that was only true for the first hour while I was waiting for everyone else to show up for the parade. (Oh the irony of taking a taxi after being out all night only to find that you're an hour early. After a year and a half in Guatemala, I should know nothing starts on time!) But once the students arrived and were waiting excitedly for the parade to start, my exhaustion left me and stayed away for the rest of the day. To the parade I wore the closest thing I have ever worn to full traje in my site-- a traditional blouse and a wrap skirt made from the traditional skirt material. I got many compliments and many more stares than usual (and when I changed back into American clothes for the afternoon, people kept saying how much prettier I looked in traje). The parade was fun, and I tried to keep my batonistas' energy up throughout.

Early in the morning with the batonistas, before the start of the parade, wearing a modified traditional "traje".

The trumpeters during the parade.

The dancers.

I spent the rest of the day wandering around with students and friends, eating street food, socializing, listening to the band in the square, playing foosball in the arcade, and riding the tiny ferris wheel. I also went to big soccer game, which was very exciting and ended in a tie-breaker. In the evening, I went to the town dance. A band had been hired to play popular durango hits (kind of like the Mexican version of country-western), and for the first hour or so the whole community was crammed around the rope that separated the dance floor, watching a couple drunks dance to the music and waiting for others to start dancing. The people in my town are very shy about showing any kind of romantic affection publicly. Eventually, some of the braver couples ventured out and the dance floor slowly filled up (but never got nearly as crowded as the audience outside of it). I got asked to dance several times by men of varying ages with varying degrees of sobriety, but I decided to just watch with the other shy people (especially because the local news camera was there and did several close-ups of my face as it was, and I still hear about the boy I danced with last year). I went home relatively early, satisfied from another year's feria in my town, but strangely sad as well to think that it is my last.

The Feria at night.

La Feria de Xela

It is my host family's tradition to go to Xela the day following the 15, which is considered a “day of rest” from school and work to recover from the festitivities. We went to the fairgrounds where the feria was still going on. I had not visited the fairgrounds yet and was excited to see the heart of the feria. Impressive carnival rides had been set up, including an extremely large ferris wheel and the terror-inducing flip-and-spin-you-all-around kinds of rides I usually avoid.

I like my host family and enjoy their company, but I did start to get concerned that the entire day would consist of watching their little girl (the afore-mentioned Queen) go on all the hokey little-kid rides, after I'd already watched a few rounds. Fortunately, my saviour arrived in the form of their 12-year-old nephew, who was my bumper-car-partner on a previous family outing. Forunatley, he seemed to be thinking what I was thinking, and we headed off to the ferris wheel. The ferris wheel was so fun and the views of the Xela and the surrounding mountain-ringed valley were astonishing.

Jonny, my fearless carnival rides partner in crime.

From there, we went on increasingly thrilling, fear-inducing rides. We took a break to eat a large traditional meal with the family (though I may have been happier filling up on fair junk food like churros and hot dogs and candy apples), then hit more rides. At one point, I noticed Jonny (prounounced “Yonny”) had fallen particularly quiet. I asked him if he was okay and he said yes. After the ride, I asked him if he liked the ride (worried he'd been scared). He told me that it didn't scare him enough. After that, I agreed to try to the truly scary rides with him, the ones that swing you backwards high into the air and leave you suspended there staring at the far-away ground, certain that you will fall. I've never been braver, and I owe it to Jonny.

With my host family.

We ended the day sitting in a sunny little park, and doing a photo shoot (of course, now that I am everyone's professional photographer). As soon as I got home, I collapsed in bed, completely exhausted and content from all the celebrations, and ready for life to get back to normal.

Friday, September 25, 2009


As soon as I got back to Guatemala, I had visitors. Two good friends from college, Jenny and Christina, came for a week, arriving the same day that I did. We spent a couple days in Xela and my site, then in Antigua because I had a work conference. Having their company definitely eased the transition for me, and it was fun to see my life through their eyes. “It´s like camping all the time!” Christina commented of my kitchen and my cooking system (having to boil the water 5 minutes for coffee and bring the dishes downstairs to wash in the pila and other small adjustments I´m so used to now that I don´t even notice). The night we spent in my town was one of the best we had, giggling and talking freely and listening to music and secretly drinking wine (it´s frowned down upon in my community). They also could understand how alone I am, which I a lot of people who have not seen it cannot understand, as I live with a host family and I am greeted by my neighbors everywhere I go. I appreciated their perspective.

And one of my best friends since freshman year of high school, Sally, came to Guatemala for almost the entire month of August, to study Spanish, travel and visit me. Some of her other friends from law school joined her as well. She spent over a week in Xela, a week at Lake Atitlán and another half week to travel with me. I was able to visit her every weekend, if only for a day sometimes, and she came up to spend a night at my town as well. At the end of her stay, I took some vacation days to travel with her.

We went to Alta Verapaz, a region in the east of the country that is blanketed with tropical jungle and famous for its natural attractions. We wanted to get off the beaten tourist track, so we made the long, long trip to the northeast of the department where an eco-tourism volunteer works to see the attractions in his area. I traveled 13 hours from my town to the closest town to where we´d be sight-seeing that had a hotel (picking up Sally in Coban, the region´s capital, on the way). The hotel itself was entertaining enough: a large tacky yellow hotel in a very little isolated town, which is in the process of expanding even more. It had some small pools in the courtyard flanked by large cement dinosaurs and elephants whose tails and trunks were slides, as well as a long fake-log slide down into the pools. We got up early in the morning, entertaining ourselves by doing silly photo-shoots with the dinosaurs and elephants.

Fortunatley, the attractions got better. We got on a bus to the entrance to Laguna Lachuá (2.5 hours further), where we met up with the volunteer that works near there. Laguna Lachuá is a perfectly-round pale green lake set in the midst of a thick rainforest. The wildlife surrounding it includes howler monkeys, spider monkeys, snakes, toucans, crocodiles, and an abundance of mosquitos and other creatures that bite and sting (as well as many more animals than I care to name). It was a beautiful two mile hike to get the lodge on the lake through the tangled green jungle. At the lodge is a simple visitor's center and bungalows to sleep in as well as a rustic kitchen for cooking. We spent the day swimming in the incredible clear water and enjoy the beauty of the view, and the other volunteer and I took another short walk through the jungle on a more overgrown trail. At night, we were blessed with cloud-less, moon-less sky. We laid out on the dock for a while, and I am not sure I have ever seen more stars crowded against the black, the Milky Way a wide shimmery trail. There also seemed to be a meteor shower, because every couple of minutes we would see a streak of white. It was perfect.

The next day we spent a lazy morning at the Lake, then hiked out. On the way, we came across some howler monkeys high in the trees, and I almost stepped on a small coiled viper that blended almost perfectly into the tan trail.

Can you spot the viper? I didn't.

We caught a bus to the volunteer´s site, where we ate lunch and met some of the locals. From there, he arranged a pick-up to take us (as well as some of his local friends and kids) to his project, Salinas, an area of the jungle that he and the local authorities are working on making a protected area and tourist attraction. The place has a rough trail that winds around some hills blanketed by rainforest. The trail passes a series of small lakes that for some mysterious reason change colors based on the time of the year. (When we visited, they were unimpressive shades of brown and green, but the volunteer swears that he has seen them when they are purple, pink, yellow...) Often you can see crocodiles, and we did spot a cluster of baby crocodiles on a log, but no adults. There were mounds in the jungle which are unexcavated ancient Mayan temples and buildings. There´s a river that contains a salt-wash, and we came to a large clay bowl buried into the earth which the ancient Mayans used to boil the water for salt. We were able to crawl into an ancient mausoleum from an opening in one of the mounds (no bones, anymore, just the stone bed where they once lay). We spotted some toucans and heard howler monkeys roaring in the trees. (Truly, they should be renamed “roaring monkeys.” They sound like how you would imagine large predatory dinosaurs sounded like before making their attack.) More than anything, the sheer beauty of the jungle was breathtaking. Palms as big as small houses, and so much plant life crowded into such a small space. In the late afternoon, we rode into the sunset in the pickup, back to his site.

That night we stayed in the volunteer´s simple one-room house (certainly no king-sized bed, balcony, and hot shower at his place), where he endured a lot of teasing from the locals for having not only one, but two gringas stay the night (even though he told them we were his sisters). The next day Sally and I caught a micro (van used for public transportation) back to Coban, where we just relaxed. We left at 4 a.m. on a bus to the Guatemala City where Sally would catch her flight, before I continued on to my site.

Although I looked like a lepor from the various bug bites scattered across my legs, and although all-in-all I probably spent more time on buses than actually on vacation (I couldn´t afford to take off more school than I did),that little trip will stand out as one of my highlights in Guatemala. Being in such a gorgeous, exotic place with my best friend... well, as she put it, “If heaven had mosquitos.”


At the end of July, I went home to Montana for a little over a week. The biggest culture shock I experienced was in the airports on the flight over, making the transition from speaking English to strangers rather than Spanish (I of course speak plenty of English with my fellow Peace Corps volunteers, but in interactions with the general public, it´s always Spanish). In the food court, for example, a (white) man mumbled something to me, clearly asking if he could sit at my table as all the others were occupied. I told him, yes of course, take a seat... but in Spanish! I´m sure he was wondering why this fair-hair white girl is pretending she´s a native Spanish speaker.

Other than that, almost as soon as I arrived, I felt right at home. The first thing that struck me was the smell. Montana has a wonderful dusty, grassy smell that I had forgotten. And the taste of that dry, clean air.

I flew into Missoula, the town where I went to college and where my little sister currently lives, and she met me at the airport. I spent the first night at her and her boyfriend´s place, catching up, and the next day we hit the town to shop with some money from the parents. Target! REI! Fish tacos at Taco del Sol! Micro brew beer! All the wonders of the United States of America. In the late afternoon, we drove to the cabin (an hour from Missoula) to meet up with the parents.

The next morning we hit the road early to go up to Glacier National Park, my favorite place on earth that I´m maybe slightly obsessed with. We spent a few days just driving around, admiring the views, stopping at the Park Café (where I worked and lived for the two best summers of my life) to fill up on delicious pie and catch up with old friends, and my sister and I escaped a couple times at night to Charlie´s, the local bar (another old haunt). The sweeping beauty of the place was as gorgeous and familiar as ever.

After Glacier, we returned to the cabin for a reunion of family and close friends, which included my other sister and grandma. We spent the day at Seeley Lake, swimming, floating, sun-bathing, and chatting ceaselessly. In the evening we had a campfire at the cabin and roasted marshmallows (of course!). After the relatives left, I had another couple relaxing, lovely days at the cabin with my parents. On the last day, it was back to Missoula. I did some last-minute shopping and went to see Harry Potter with my mom, then got together with my parents, little sister and my second cousin and his family at an Italian restaurant for a last dinner, before getting on my evening flight back to Guatemala.

While I was home, I was surprised that things weren´t stranger. I felt as if I´d picked up where I left off; home didn´t feel like it had changed for me. What was strange, however, was to think of my life in Guatemala, how drastically different it was, and to even believe that it was real. So, to be honest, I didn´t really think of it much. It was easier not to, and to just enjoy my time home as if nothing had happened. That´s not to say that I don´t love Guatemala. Returning to it was telling. On the plane, as I looked down at the velvety green landscape, interrupted by the sharp triangles of austere volcanoes, I felt content to be returning to my life here, my other home.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Tragic Tale of Deysi

So I guess in the Peace Corps, you can never really know what it is that will challenge you. I certainly never expected that my main problems (so far) would be caused by a little cat.

I should premise by saying that I have always been a big animal lover, more so than the other members of my family. But my mom and other sister have asthma and have always been allergic to cats and most dogs. As a little girl, I went through a “kitten phase”, when I just didn’t think I could live without having a kitten. Well, somehow I survived. In college, when I was finally on my own, I resisted the very strong temptation to get a cat or a dog because I knew afterwards I would want to travel, and maybe do the Peace Corps. After graduation, I moved to Boston and did two years of AmeriCorps... no pets possible there (and I was still thinking about PC). Then all that resistance to temptation finally paid off as I, of course, finally DID apply to the Peace Corps.

But when I got to Guatemala, I realized that lots of volunteers get pets here. My little “apartment” in the family complex was obviously not dog-friendly. But when some volunteers sent out an e-mail advertising obscenely adorable kittens that their cat just had, I thought, “Why not?” If there was a tiny voice in my head that said, “You have asthma now, that’s why not,” I ignored it. I assured myself that I was NOT allergic to cats because I had lived with a roommate for a year that had 2 cats, so why would I be allergic to cats now?

So I replied to the e-mail and made the very long trip to these volunteers’ site in San Marcos with my cardboard box. Then I made the very long trip back (5 hours in all), with a very upset kitten scratching at the cardboard box and meowing the whole time. She spent the entire first day in her new home under the bed. But slowly she began venturing out and would let me pet her and soon enough, I was her best pal. I called her “Deysi” because I had a couple students named that and liked the Guatemalan spelling. She’d follow me around and was the perfect combination of cuddly and playful (in my opinion). She of course had some annoying habits (like tearing up the curtains and jumping in the big fake plant pot and getting dirt everywhere), but overall I felt a lot less lonely with her around. I found that I didn’t want to leave home as much (to visit Xela or other volunteers), and was content hanging out, baking or reading, with her for company. I planned on getting a cat carrier and taking her with me after the Peace Corps, wherever I should go. I figured if she could handle 5 hours in a camioneta in a cardboard box, she could handle whatever else might come our way. She was my first pet.

But of course the tale doesn’t end there, cuz then it wouldn’t be “tragic”. At first, I seemed fine health-wise, just a little sniffly. But I didn’t think anything of it because I’m always getting colds and the rainy season had just started. The sniffles didn’t go away, and I had a night of bad asthma attacks, but I continued to blame the rain. And I decided to kick her out of my room at night, just in case. I also thought about asking the nurses to put me on allergy meds. I figured whatever happened, I could manage it with medication. She didn’t seem to be making me very sick, and I thought allergy pills would take care of the sniffles.

But I’m new to asthma (I was diagnosed in February) and didn’t know much about how it works. My mom explained to me later that a person with asthma can push themselves over the edge, can over-expose themselves to an allergen and become even more sensitive and allergic. Apparently, I hit a point where I became very allergic to Deysi.

One night I woke up at 3 a.m. with my ears ringing. I slowly realized that I was very short of breath-- having an asthma attack. It wasn’t the first time I’ve awoken to attacks at night, but usually a puff or two of the inhaler and I’m fine. This time was different. I puffed on the inhaler, but my breaths continued to get only shorter and shorter. I developed a painful pressure in my chest. I sat in the dark, so tired but unable to sleep, listened to my gasping breaths, wondering if at any moment they would just stop completely. I puffed again and again on the inhaler. It didn’t help at all. Finally at 5 a.m., frightened, I called the Peace Corps on-duty nurse. She told me I needed to get to the hospital. I woke my host brother who has a car, but while he was getting ready, slowing my breathing returned to normal. The nurse still thought I should get to Xela and see the doctor as soon as possible. In the hospital they put me on a nebulizer and took a bunch of tests. I stayed for the day, reading in bed, until the results were in and they let me go with a prescription for allergy pills. I knew I would have to give up my cat.

The next night the attacks started at 11 p.m. I woke up my host family and asked to stay in their part of the house, in a spare bedroom, to be away from all the cat hair, hoping that would help. The attacks did not cease, and an hour later I called the nurse again. She suggested a hot shower, and after taking a long, blissfully hot shower, my breathing normalized again and I went to bed. Unfortunately, the attacks started again soon after. They weren’t as severe as the previous night, and I was able to snatch bits of uncomfortable sleep in between. But that was the worst night of my Peace Corps experience. I cried a lot, which I am certain did not help the attacks, sad about my cat, scared, and very physically uncomfortable. I knew I could not live like this. My host family had cats, and I wondered, even if I got rid of my cat, would this continue? My host family is such a bit part of my life here, and in this community, where people do not visit each other’s houses casually, your family is your social network. I wasn’t sure I’d be willing to move, or even find a place without allergens. I thought, if this continues, I am going home. I’m done here. The attacks didn’t stop until 7 a.m.

The next day, one the nurse’s orders, I started the process of scouring my house. I avoided Deysi and eventually brought her downstairs, which made us both very miserable. She was very upset to be apart from me, and hid all day, terrified of the host family’s dog and cats and all the new people around. I dusted and scrubbed walls and tore off curtains and blankets and the clothes that hang in my hallway-- everything that she had touched. I didn’t have asthma attacks, but I had an ache in my chest that hurt every time I breathed. I wrote an e-mail on my computer advertising a free cat, to send out to volunteers. I caught the afternoon bus into Xela to wash the mountain of laundry. In Xela, I called the nurse again, worried about the chest pain and the tightness in my throat, scared that I would just have another rough night. She listened, and called the doctor who agreed to see me. They gave me the nebulizer, which is like a breath of the sweetest and freshest air you’ve ever tasted (to an asthmatic, anyway), and decided to let me stay the night. It was bliss, which is a strange thing to say of a night in the hospital. I had regular doses of the nebulizer, an oxygenated room, and I could sleep the night without fear.

The next day I avoided Deysi again and contacted a volunteer that had agreed to cat-sit and made arrangements to drop her off the next day. The morning of the drop-off, I let myself pet her again, thinking it might be my last day with her, and took her on my lap on the camioneta, even though by now contact with her immediately gave me a headache and the sniffles. I was sad, but also relieved, knowing how miserable the last couple of days had been for the both of us. And I was lucky. On my way back, a volunteer called responding to the e-mail. She’d take her in a couple of weeks.

I was also lucky in the sense that that week was the All-Volunteer Conference, a professional development conference and 4th of July Party, the only time all year that all the volunteers in the country get together. I arrived a day early to visit a breathing specialist in the Capital, and finally I felt like I was talking to someone that really understood my condition and had some real answers for me. He gave me new medications, explained all that I didn’t understand, and even gave me something to take in an emergency and a tool to gauge my breathing. And the next few days of socializing and fun and being with my American friends was exactly what I needed to move on from all that had happened. And I only had a couple asthma attacks.

Last Saturday, a week later, was the last step of the Deysi saga. I picked her up at the cat-sitter’s house and took her on a camioneta for 3 hours on my lap, where she was terrified and meowed frantically and tried to hide under my arms. But when she finally got to her new home, she relaxed immediately and seemed content. And I know that the volunteer that took her will be a great owner. I am so fortunate that it all resolved itself so well. The house is very quiet, I am alone again, and when I think of her and that horrible week, it gives me a pang. But at least I finally had my cat, if only for a little while.