15 December, 2008

Rapid Fire!

Hey Everyone,

I'm on a roll! Check out my web page (updated today) and especially my House Tour on the Family and Friends page. Its a Powerpoint tour of my house here in Guatemala. Miss you all! Peace.

13 December, 2008

Hectic Holidays

"Everybody else just calm down. This financial meltdown will affect you ONLY if you own a house or are paid in currency." ~ Steven Colbert

Thank goodness. I rent and am paid in birds (Quetzales is the national currency, and they are also the national bird).

I meant to post this very soon after I heard it back in October, but one thing kept coming up after another. Before I knew it, I had let almost an entire quarter of a year slip by. This in no way means that nothing has been happening down here; on the contrary things have been busier than ever. The ironic thing was that I had put off updating this blog until I got internet access towards the end of October, but since I’ve been back online it seems like I actually have less time to post pictures, update the blog, and write emails than before. I used to have to budget my internet time very specifically, whereas now I can chat with friends, check news, and even use skype to make video calls back to the states from my bedroom. I’ve actually become much worse at responding to correspondence!

So I think I last left off with tales of Jared and Jimmy’s visit. October was a tough month. My best volunteer friend here went back to the U.S., so it was a little rough figuring out a new support system for days when I just needed to vent, but everyone has got to move on. It was kind of a wake up for me that even though it seems like I’ll be here for an extremely long time, 27 months is not forever, especially looking at it from the end of month 11.

October was the last month of classes for the year, which meant that it was pretty much impossible to get anything done other than help the kids and teachers prepare for final examinations. From 4th grade on, the kids need to pass these exams to move onto the next grade, so there was a lot of stress. That didn’t stop us from celebrating Día de Niño (Children’s Day) on the first of the month, and then we had a lot of parties celebrating the year during the last week of the month after Finals were graded and we were waiting for the graduation ceremony. They have a Graduation for the 1st graders and the 6th graders, and somehow, I ended up helping about 18 guys tie their ties. Most of them had never worn one before.

Through an amazing donation from the Sunday school classes at First Presbyterian Church in Elgin, I was able to go with the director of my school up to Quetzaltenango to buy a TV and DVD player for the school to use next year. The teachers were absolutely thrilled, as this means that they will actually be able to play movies and show clips to the students next year. I’d say about half of the students actually have Televisions in their homes, but the children’s programming on Guatemalan Broadcast TV is pretty poor and basically limited to Dragon Ball Z and Yugi-Oh, so the possibility to watch something educational will be something completely new. We had some money left over, so we decided to use it to buy some DVDs and a few more books to add to the collection that was also sent by First Pres earlier in the year. These added resources are really going to make a difference in the quality of education that the kids here in Las Marias will be getting, and I would like to pass on the many thank yous from the faculty and students here back to everyone at First Pres in Elgin. I will be taking pictures of the students and school again when classes resume in January, so be watching for the TV you all bought!

The end of classes meant that I had a bit more free time, so I took a little vacation the weekend of Halloween and went to visit a friend of mine from Michigan Tech who is serving right across the border in Peace Corps Honduras. He lives about a 15 minute walk from some really great Mayan Ruins, so we explored those, and then went to a Halloween party. It was neat getting to meet a different crowd of Peace Corps Volunteers, talk about similar challenges, and get some new ideas.

I spent a good chunk of time in November in and around Mexico City as part of a conference on volcanic gases. Michigan Tech was able to put up the money to send Jemile Erdem who is working at Fuego and me, and we both learned a lot. It was neat being able to go back to a city that I knew. We got a chance to put some of what we learned into practice with a two day field trip to Popocatépetl, a big volcano about 40 km south of Mexico City.

I spent a week in Antigua at an In-Service Training session for Peace Corps, and it was really nice to see my host family and some other far away volunteers again. However, returning from that trip meant celebrating my first Thanksgiving away from my family, but with the help of some other volunteers, we made the best of it by cooking an entire dinner here at my house. It was actually perfect. We didn’t have a football, but we did have a Frisbee, so we played a little Ultimate. The next day we went swimming out at my river, which is heated by the lava flow coming off the volcano.

December has already been super busy. I’ve been doing a lot of preparation work getting ready for a pretty large field campaign that will start the 28th of this month, the same day as my friends Annie and Ryan’s wedding back in Illinois. I’ve spent some time hiking and scouting out some locations, and I also went up to visit a fellow volunteer Kurt Bradler at his site that is only about 6 km away from me, but due to terrain difficulties and bad roads it takes about 2 hours to get there in a car. I’m debating on finding out how long it would take to walk one of these days…

So that is basically what I have been up to. Please check out the new pictures I posted, and I will do my best to write soon after Christmas, but just in case, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year! Peace.

12 December, 2008

Entry from Jared

As I sit here scouring the internet for the best deal on the Patagonia Half Mass Bag, I reflect on my recent trip to Guatemala to visit Kyle, noting how materialism and consumerism has slow crept back into my life after a year here back in the United States. My trip with Jimmy to Guatemala was refreshing and pushed me out of my comfort zone, as I kept wondering if our chicken bus, our late night treks through the towns/cities, our hikes and our taxi and boat rides would contribute to the scary and violent statistics of crime in Guatemala. The mission in Guatemala was three-fold: 1) visit one of my good friends Kyle, making memories, 2) expand my knowledge on Latin America by visiting one of the Central American countries to experience an eyewitness account of Guatemala and 3)return to Brooke safely and free of any communicable diseases and/or parasites. With these three objectives, I commenced my journey expecting the worse but hoping for the best, and on the sixth and final day of our trip through Guatemala, I know longer had to expect the worst and by all accounts, Jimmy’s and my trip to a country the size of Kentucky was interesting, reflective and enjoyable. In this reflection I will elaborate on these three objectives and discuss how my time helped me to better understand myself. With this exegesis, I want to share with you all my experiences with Kyle.

As I discovered I had a week free some scholastic duties, I quickly turned to one of my favorite websites, www.sidestep.com to search for airfares. Lamenting previous years when I was currently enrolled in classes at Augustana and receiving e-mails regarding airfare sales in September, I was quick to look for a cheap flight outside of the US. I encountered cheap airfares to Guatemala and Costa Rica (~$400 to Guatemala and ~$285 to Costa Rica). Knowing full well I would be taking my chances with hurricane season, I booked my flight to Guatemala after consulting Kyle. It was settled, I would be going to Guatemala to visit Kyle, to see what exactly he is doing. Much to my pleasant surprise, my good friend Jimmy called four days before the trip to let me know he would be accompanying me to Guatemala. Recently returning from Argentina, I did not expect Jimmy to accept my invitation, but I am quite glad he did and must state that he is a perfect traveling companion.

Kyle in Guatemala

Upon landing in Guatemala, Kyle was there to greet us with chicken sandwiches from the Guatemalan fast food chain, Pollo Campero (Country Chicken). Amidst our excitement to see each other, we piled into a cab with negotiating a price. Upon arriving to our destination, Kyle asked what the cost of the 10-minute trip would be, and the taxi driver replied 70 Quetzales (~$10)—an exorbitant amount when obtaining travel in Guatemala. Kyle argued with the driver and after a heated exchanged that included Guatemalans from the street there in the middle of Zone 8 in Guatemala City, Kyle ceded his fight to obtain a lower price after the fellow Guatemalans started telling the cab driver that the price of the ride should be even higher. The cab driver won fair and square; we had forgotten to negotiate a price. Sadly, being an American, we would find price increases towards us Gringos to be common practice on our trips. This is not an isolated experience in my travels in Latin America, and furthermore, Lonely Planet does a terrific job emphasizing the importance of negotiating a price. This exchange between Kyle and cab driver helped elucidate Kyle’s comfort level and acclimation to Guatemala. Being comfortable enough to argue in Spanish with a cab driver in one of the most dangerous cities in the world demonstrated this to us. After a five-hour bus journey on a Pullman, a chicken bus and a microbus, we arrived to Kyle’s site, Las Marias—a small pueblo of two thousand people, equipped with electricity and running water. Jimmy and I were soon to note a trait that had developed in Kyle, his ability to talk aloud to himself in English. After seeing Kyle’s dwelling, we came to understand why Kyle would occasionally talk to himself. His two room concrete walled home with kitchen and porch was sufficient and in Guatemalan standards, an arguably nice place to live. Next to his porch, stood the outhouse, which included such amenities as a half functioning toilet, a cold water shower and a window giving view to the front gate. It is important to note that this window is not covered by anything nor has any glass. After the rains, dirt finds its way to the floor the shower, which made it quite difficult to feel zest fully clean. Later, Jimmy and I found out that even Kyle wears sandals in his shower, something Jimmy and I didn’t do . . . bring on the athlete’s foot and/or warts. Finally, concluding a description of Kyle’s place, one must mention that the roof is covered with tin laminate, that his sink is outside, that his property covered with fruit trees and that it is home to some wicked little bugs that give some itchy little bites. Kyle does have a stove that serves several purposes. If you want to know what those purposes are, ask him. He is quite ingenious.

Kyle’s community seems to adore him, especially the children. Working in the school, he spends a great deal of time with them, and the kids cannot seem to get enough of Kyle, sitting at his gate calling out, “Arturo, venga!” (Kyle goes by his middle name--or his alter-ego-- in Guatemala. Kyle is too difficult to pronounce in Spanish and is not a common name.) Everyone greets him as is common practice in Guatemala, and the children even play Hopscotch outside of this property. While he is not in school, Kyle has the awesome responsibility of monitoring the local volcano Santiaguito. Taking us on a three hour trek, we accompanied Kyle up to his observatory located in the Finca El Faro (The Lighthouse Plantation). This plantation is home to shade grown coffee, macadamia trees and banana trees. The plantation has its own coffee processing plant and eventually the coffee beans end up in the hands of Starbucks. The next time you are drinking Starbucks, as Kyle says, we may have urinated on the coffee beans you are drinking. So, if it tastes a little funky, you can blame us. At the observatory, which is staffed 24-hours a day, Kyle showed us the instruments they use to monitor the volcano’s activity. The volcano is active, and before the cloud cover set in, we were able to see it emit a cloud of ash and whatever the scientific vocabulary Kyle uses to describe the cloud’s composition. The volcano also discharges a volcanic ‘mud’ as Kyle explained, which often comes down the river and enters the finca. You are able to see how the banks of the river have been eroded by this hot mud and how dangerously close the finca workers live to the cliff’s edge down to the river. The finca’s owner has decided not to relocate the workers’ living quarters and prohibits Kyle from educating the workers on the dangers of the erosion. Hopefully some day the owner will set aside his ambitions toward profits and relocate the workers to safer ground where they will not slide into a river 100-feet below. When not observing the volcano Kyle is educating the village and the children about their active neighbor and developing evacuation plans for when the volcano becomes upset. Finally, is worth noting that the finca is incredibly well maintained, clean and even has its own attempt at recycling. A person caught throwing trash on the ground is fined when inside the finca. This is in sharp contrast with the rest of Guatemala as trash is found everyone. In Kyle’s village there is no garbage collection, and as we did one day, Kyle has to carry out his trash to the nearest big city to dispose of it there. Needless to say Kyle seems to be one of the only ambitious members of the community who try to dispose of their trash correctly. Kyle expressed to us his goal of implementing an effective way for the village to collect and rid themselves of their non-biodegradable trash. However, the infrastructure in his village is that of the rest of Guatemala: inefficient, insufficient, in disrepair and often absence.

Kyle has seemed to bond well with the other volunteers; though, it is not hard to like Kyle and enjoy his company. It was good to hear his laugh. While I know other volunteers may read this, I must acknowledge that the group Kyle associates with is a very diverse group of individuals who Kyle may or may not have been close friends with if he were in the United States. However, in Guatemala, they all seem close and function as support system for each other, discussing their frustrations and joys in Guatemala. Jimmy and I had the pleasure to spend three days with Joey, one of Kyle’s close friends in Guatemala, and he is definitely a ‘keeper.’ He is incredibly friendly and has a great sense of humor, providing the source for Kyle’s laughter.

Kyle’s attitude seems to be quite positive given the adversity that comes to living alone in a foreign country. He has established a good relationship with the community and has found ways to cope with his solitude by reading books, playing video games and going to bed early. He looks forward to the weekends he enjoys with his fellow Peace Corp friends, and the volcano seems to be a constant source of energy and excitement in his life. It is also very important to mention that Kyle has found positive ways to help cope with these stresses; he has avoided alcohol and other detrimental coping mechanisms. This is truly admirable and demonstrates the character Kyle has. He is a great representative and model citizen of the United States.

I must acknowledge Kyle’s spending habits because as a Peace Corp volunteer he is paid a livable Guatemalan wage, no more and no less. This has led Kyle to watch his finances closes, as evidenced by his argument with the cab driver in Guatemala City. However, other elements of his frugality surfaced in the course of our trip. When deciding on transportation, Kyle always opted for the chicken busses—the cheapest means of travel. Sitting three adults to a seat in these old former American school busses often still with stop sign, we bumped our way along the Guatemalan roads and highways. Even on my offers of covering their transportation costs on the more luxurious private microbusses, Kyle would retort, “Why would you waste our money on those when the chicken busses will take us there in about the same amount of time?” However, Kyle did splurge (and when I say splurge, he was willing to spend more that 5 quetzales ($.75)), he would use his money on food—a wise investment if I do say so myself. However, Kyle still could not escape his American consumer past as he bargain hunted for a leather messenger bag to hold his belongings and notebooks. For him, money and finances seemed tight, and he was constantly aware of his budget and meeting it. His monthly MS Excel spreadsheet acted as evidence as his frugality. His budgeting will serve him well as he returns back to the US and encounters the temptations of a consumer and materialistic society—something that I try to fight every day.

Thanks Jared!

Jared List is currently a Masters Student studying Spanish Literature at the Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio. We went to Augustana College together.

28 September, 2008

Visiting a PCV in Guatemala

For those of you who may end up suffering from cabin fever this winter, I would like to offer you a cheap way to escape the cold by extending a general invitation to come visit me in Guatemala. I can promise warm weather, beautiful hikes, good coffee, diverse cultural experiences and of course some swimming in a beautiful volcanic lake, one of two oceans, or some hot springs depending on your fancy – all for dirt cheap.

When I say cheap, I mean you can spend as little as $135 per week plus the cost of airfare. What’s the catch? Well, what I’m offering isn’t so much a vacation as an experience. You will be sacrificing a whole lot of creature comforts, especially if you are above 5 feet 2 inches tall. Of course I am not limiting visitors to those who wish to rough it for a week; I would be more than happy to show anyone around the country I currently call home. However, going on my first experience with visitors this last month, I have come up with a set of “suggestions” that will make any visit run more smoothly.

Although Guatemala is roughly the size of Tennessee, the mountainous terrain and the generally poor road conditions make travel the largest obstacle in the country. For example, although my home is located only about 100 miles away from the capital, the journey takes me usually between 4 and 5 hours. Other trips that look close on a map can often be much longer due to unexpected construction or road blocks (both natural due to landslides and manmade because of minor protests).

There are only two ways to get around Guatemala: the cheap way, and the expensive way. The cheap way is the way I do it, on a camionetta a.k.a. chicken bus (think decked out school bus with luggage racks inside and out and ladders on the front and back for the helper to climb up and down while the bus is moving). These are slow and uncomfortable, but by far the most reliable means of transportation in the country. They leave sometimes in accordance with a schedule, but more often than not when they are full. By full I do not mean 57 person capacity, I mean three to every seat and two people standing back to back in the isle. It gets tight. If you chose this way to get around Guatemala, make sure you bring only one carryon bag, preferably nothing bigger than a 40 L hiking bag. If you cannot survive on what you can fit in one of these for the time you are here, you MUST choose the more expensive way. I just wouldn’t be able to handle the stress of more luggage than that on these busses.

The second way to get around is to rent a car or hire a driver. If you want to see half of the cool stuff in the country, you will absolutely need a 4 wheel drive vehicle with good clearance. The more beefy the shocks the more comfortable your ride will be. I hear going rates for a pick-up from Avis is around $60 a day, but I’m sure you can look online and find something cheaper. I am not sure how expensive it is or what the details are for hiring a driver, but I would be able to find out if you wanted to look at that route. I would be able to drive for you as well.

I should mention that there are also shuttles that one can hire to transport you around some of the country’s tourist hot spots for those of you who think you are all cool because you can read a guide book. Take heed of their warnings about these shuttles: they are often unreliable and many times the drivers will try and cheat you. I dislike these shuttles other than to and from the airport out of Antigua.

As far as food and lodging goes, the options are similar to those in the transportation category, but I trust the mid range a lot more. You can stay in hostels for as little as $3.50 a night. These will be clean and safe, but you will be sharing a bathroom and sometimes not have hot water. There are lots of hotels in the $35-$50 a night per person range, and I consider these to be absolutely luxurious – to most people they will probably be on par with a Holiday Inn Express in the states. Of course there are also more expensive places, and I can recommend some to you if you need me too, but I have no personal experience with them whatsoever.

A meal can be between $1.50 and $4.00, but with an American appetite you will probably not be full afterwards, it took me a while to adjust to the smaller portions, but I have also lost 15 lbs since I arrived and I haven’t been sick for more than a day, so maybe for a week it would be worth it. These meals are mostly sanitary, but may make you sick if you have bad luck. Gambling with food sanitation has become second nature to me, and I like to think that my belly is a little stronger than most. More expensive but %100 safe food will range between $4.00 and $8.00 (McDonalds and Wendy’s fall in this category), and of course there are nice restaurants with fancy food for more money (I occasionally treat myself to a $14 meal at Chile’s in the capital, and I hear there’s even better food that that in some restaurants!).

A quick note on drinks: the beer sucks and it is expensive, about what you would pay in the states. This is due to the fact that there is only one company that makes beer in the whole country, and they actually became a monopoly by buying the only bottle manufacturing outfit in the country and then refusing to sell bottles to anyone else. The mixed drinks are a bit better and may be a price break for those of you living life in the big cities of the U.S. of A., but for those of you used to frequenting small town family establishments, you are better off waiting to imbibe until you return home.

Admission to most of the places I would take you will be ridiculously cheap as compared to what you are most likely used to, and I am available to help anyone on any budget to plan your ideal trip to the Land of Eternal Spring. I unfortunately do have some restrictions I need to work around if you would like me to accompany you on part of or the entirety of your journey. These restrictions all basically branch out of the singular and inescapable fact that I am a Peace Corps volunteer. First off, if you want me to help show you around, give me all the notice you can. I need to manage vacation days, not to mention I actually have a job that I am doing down here, so the more notice the greater the chance that I can spend more time with you. Second, I am a “volunteer” and as such am given roughly $275 by the government of the United States of America to survive on every month. Remember when I said I occasionally eat at Chile’s? That $14 is 5% of my monthly wages. Out of this sum I pay rent, utilities, food costs, transportation costs, and any other incidental expenses that may come up, which is why I am thoroughly unversed in the high rolling side of Guatemala. That being said of course, I have also seen and done some amazing things so far on this budget, so it is by no means inadequate. It does mean though that I cannot afford to spend a whole week or two eating Wendy’s and paying for private bathrooms.

So there you have it, my personal travel warnings for Guatemala. One more thing I should mention, but this goes for almost any trip you might be planning: don’t bring anything you aren’t prepared to replace. I’ve had a string of bad luck recently with theft, and I would consider it irresponsible on my part not to say something. If you bring a camera or something, make sure you can carry it on your person at all times, and some kind of money belt or a special pocket for holding valuables (credit cards and passports) is advisable.

I love having visitors and I promise I will do everything I can to help make your trip amazing, but I don’t want to give anyone any false impressions. Tickets down here can occasionally be cheaper than domestic flights, so pick your favorite fare tracker and get down here! If nothing else gets you down here, I live next to an ACTIVE VOLCANO and I pass the coffee that you will be drinking at Starbucks next year on my morning walk to work! Peace.

Counting Blessings

September has been a very busy month. I have actually been doing a bit of traveling thanks to a lull in school activity and a visit from some friends from the U.S. of A.

I got a chance to visit the ocean for the first time since I have been in Guatemala, which seems strange since I can see it on clear days on my walk to work. I joined up with a group of friends traveling to the coast, and we met up in Antigua early one Saturday morning to head down to the beach town of Monterrico. After lounging around for the afternoon, we set out on a hike to find some Leatherback turtles that supposedly were leaving their ocean homes to lay their eggs on the beach. We had gotten sold on the hike by a local guide who promised detailed information and who seemed to be very knowledgeable about these marine turtles. However, when the time came to head out hunting, he ended up leaving us with two teenage kids who didn’t know a turtle from a log and ended up just asking other people on the beach who were collecting the eggs themselves. This was a bit shady, because although they all assured us that they were collecting the eggs to sell to a hatchery in town that was set up to combat egg poaching, no one was writing down any information or even seemed to be taking good care of the eggs (they carried them in plastic shopping bags). After a good 45 minute hike up the beach and passing two nests, we finally found one female who had just started laying. The guy who had found the turtle first had “dibs” on the eggs, but he let us watch and even catch the eggs as the female deposited them in the nest! This was an extremely weird feeling, and especially being uncertain of the fate of the little guys, I’m still not sure that I recommend the hike, but if the babies end up in the hatchery and not in some Capitaleño’s soup, it probably is a good thing that these people are doing.

The second week of September was my school’s week long celebration of Independence Day. We spent four days doing talent shows, a scholastic bowl, a beauty pageant, and a field day. I was privileged to take part in all the festivities, and it actually was pretty fun. On Friday we had a running of the Antorcha, which commemorates the arrival from Mexico of news that Guatemala had won her independence from Spain. To celebrate this, I got up at 3:30 in the morning to supposedly leave town at 4 AM. Well, what I had forgotten is that although the teachers at my school are usually very punctual, we were dealing with other Guatemalans. So the bus that we had chartered for 4 AM showed up at 5 AM. I boarded the bus with my teachers and a whole bunch of students and their families, and we set off for Panahachel, at town on Lake Atitlán. We arrived at about 9 and had until 2 to enjoy the lake and the tourist town. I ended up hanging out with my director and the other male teacher while all the female teachers bought tourist trinkets. We left of course an hour late at 3 PM and didn’t get back to our town until 9 PM. When we arrived, about a kilometer out of town I got off the bus with all the students and some of the parents. Several of the students had makeshift torches that were constructed of coffee or soup cans screwed onto branches or broom handles. Inside they placed cotton whetted with gasoline, which were then set ablaze and handed to the 8-12 year olds. The kids then set out running and blowing whistles or screaming at the top of their lungs. We ran through the whole town, about a 3 km run, as people stood by the side of the road cheering. This apparently served as a summons to the school, where the winners of the talent shows reenacted their performances and all other winners were recognized individually. Following that, we had a dance party in the school yard, and I finally went home and fell asleep with my clothes on at 11.

The next day I left site again, this time not until 5:30, and headed into the Capital to pick up my friends Jared and Jimmy (fellow Augustana Alumni). We headed back to my site for a few days, took a brief tour of Xela, and then we even took a day trip to Lake Atitlán and back to the town of Panahachel again. They came bearing gifts: a replacement camera!!! It was purchased by First Presbyterian in Elgin, and I really don’t know how to thank them enough. It’s amazing that the congregation could be so generous, and I am humbled by the interest that my home congregation has shown in my work down here. I’m incredibly blessed to be supported by so many people. To those of you from church that are keeping up with me via this blog, I really can’t thank you enough for such an incredible gift.

I think that Jimmy and Jared enjoyed their trip despite a lot of uncomfortable traveling, and I sure learned a lot about hosting people. I’ll be including a little list of things to consider if you want to visit Guatemala in a separate entry based mostly on our experiences. For my part, it was great to have people from home come visit and experience a bit of my life. I think the main thing that their visit did for me was verify exactly how crazy I have become in the last 9 months. I must be pretty well adjusted to life here, because things like jumping on a 5 hour bus ride where my knees are literally under my chin or walking for an hour and a half to get somewhere seem second nature to me. My sense of time has completely changed, as was evident by my absolute inability to give accurate times that a journey would take; most of my traveling involves leaving someplace at dawn and going until I get there, so trying to incorporate multiple destinations in a single day really taxed my logistic skills. I also realized that I have been getting very upset over very small amounts of money, like when a bus tried to change one Quetzal more per person on our ride up to Quetzaltenango. One Q is like 15 cents. I should probably let that stuff go, but when you live your life on $275 a month, and 2Q is one percent of your monthly income, 15 cents seems like a lot larger quantity of money.

After an early morning trip to drop off Jared and Jimmy in Antigua, I headed back north on the Panamerican Highway to Santa Clara La Laguna which is the site of a fellow Environmental Ed volunteer to celebrate Joey’s birthday. We had a cake and even a little spontaneous dance party in the kitchen. It was really nice, and I think Joey had a good time. The next day we headed up to Chicamán for a welcome party for some of the new volunteers in the department of El Quiché, and with hopes of a river tubing trip, but due to recent heavy rains that wasn’t in the cards. It was a nice weekend though, despite the heavy traveling, with the only down part being the robbery of my external hard drive which I had been carrying to send some data to the volunteer I replaced. It was in my backpack which I allowed to be put on the roof of a microbus because there wasn’t room inside. It would have been fine, but the driver kept stopping to allow people to climb on the top of the bus, and one of those passengers happened to have a razor blade they used to slash open my backpack and steal the hard drive and my USB pen drive as well. At least every time I get robbed I have less to lose; if someone wants to rob me next time they are going to have to bring a truck, because the only things I have left worth stealing are my bed and refrigerator!

This week is finally a return to normalcy for me, and a chance to rest my aching spine by staying off of busses for awhile. I returned yesterday to a celebration at the Basico (think Junior High) in my site. They were commemorating their 4th anniversary of being a school, which basically involved a beauty pageant, but with a twist as it also involved two male contestants competing for a separate title. The categories here were sportswear, talent (mostly dancing while lip-singing), evening wear, and speech. The moms in the crowd really went nuts for the two guys. Check out another upcoming entry devoted to the oddities of Guatemalan beauty pageants. Tuesday and Wednesday there were parties all over town, and fireworks going off every so often. Judging by the focus around the Catholic Church, I deduced that it was some kind of holiday, but asking around town no one knew what holiday it was, just that it was the 24th of September. At about 7 PM on Wednesday night I started hearing a lot of big fireworks, so I decided it would probably be a good idea to go for a walk. I got up to the church and saw a procession starting its walk, so I almost impulsively joined in. I’m not really sure where that instinct came from… maybe I’m adjusting even more than I thought I was. On that note, Peace.

28 August, 2008

Spring is in the Air

As most of you back in the United States are enjoying the last dog days of summer and preparing to welcome the changes that come with autumn, here in Guatemala the air has more of a feeling of spring. School here runs (theoretically) from January to October, so going into September means that it feels like May back home. The “winter” here is ending (although it really is technically summer as we are still in the Northern Hemisphere), school vacation and an end to the rains and occasional hurricanes are in sight, and people are beginning to make plans for the good weather months.

School is all a buzz right now with preparations for Independence Day celebrations, which for Guatemala is the 15th of September. I’m told there will be parades, performances, and all sorts of other festive activities, so that should be a fun blog post next month. However, with the preparation for these activities there really isn’t much time for me to be in the classroom giving lessons, especially because end of the year exams are the first week of October. So right now I am contenting myself with helping where I can when I’m at school, and just trying to get kids to pick up after themselves during recess.

Work around town is starting to ramp up as well, as on the other side of the village they are getting ready to put in sewers and a paved street where right now there is just a dirt road. They do have sewers currently, but apparently they are old and have been breaking down and backing up recently, so this project (which was slated to begin in June) will be a welcome relief to many people.

The rains this year have been particularly destructive to our streets around town, most of which are dirt or crude cobblestone, so our village council is scrambling to try and figure out which areas need the most attention with the most urgency. The town is basically perched on a cliff above a pretty large river, and many of the poorer families live very close to the edge. There are also several streets and paths that pass very close to the cliff, and there is a major problem with erosion going on at several key locations around town. I’m not really sure what they’re going to be able to accomplish though; they have already received notice that there are no funds for street projects left this year because they all went to the sewer/street project. The council has asked my help in scouting out possible organizations that could fund small infrastructure projects, but I’m starting from scratch as the Peace Corps hasn’t traditionally been involved in road building here in Guatemala.

I’m looking forward to the end of school because it means that I will have more time to focus on the volcano. In addition to trying to get started on some new data collection, I also have been asked to help with some field work being carried out by the national office, which should be very interesting. In addition, better weather will bring with it more visits from other scientists, which means more field time and a steeper learning curve for me.

I think that’s it for this round, Peace.

18 August, 2008

Plans and promises

August has felt a lot like starting over here in Las Marias. After being gone or busy for most of July, including a wonderful trip back to the U.S., it is nice to get back and get some work done. Unfortunately, I didn’t have that great of a homecoming. I arrived back at my house to find that someone had broken in while I was gone and made off with a good deal of my stuff, including my camera, so unfortunately I won’t be posting anymore pictures. It was a tough blow, especially because I had been using the camera for my research efforts, but the community has been very sympathetic and offered very heartfelt apologies; everyone seems to think that it reflects badly on them personally. My landlord is putting bars over the windows to make the house safer, and all my neighbors have been on high alert ever since I’ve been back, but so far no one has any leads on who the culprit may be.

My boss from Peace Corps came out and helped me give a workshop to my teachers. It was a bit stressful having to plan an entire day’s worth of activities, but the workshop was a success, and I think everyone learned a lot and had a good time as well. That, plus a whole box full of books that First Pres of Elgin sent down, has put bumped up my street credit around the school, where up until this month I have kind of been feeling like someone that the teachers just put up with.
I’m pretty sad that the school year is almost over, as we are entering our final quarter, and school will be out for vacations after the second week in October until January.

In response to some pretty diligent requests on the part of a group of guys that works for one of the coffee fincas (think plantation when you read this word), I have started a small English course that meets Tuesday and Thursday nights. I’m thinking of it as kind of a pilot program; if I do alright as a teacher, I’ll probably start offering some more classes as my schedule allows because people have been asking me to teach English since I got here. The bottle project is going well, but I am still not sure if we will have enough bottles by the end of the year to actually build a bodega. Everything else is just kind of trucking along… life is busy and good. I’ll be going up to visit a friend’s site on Wednesday to help her give a workshop to her teachers about trash management lessons, so that should be fun, but other than that, not much new to report. I hope everyone’s getting the most out of the end of summer and that those of you going back to school have a good start. More soon, Peace.

23 July, 2008

Off into the wild blue yonder

Well, I fly back to Chicago this afternoon, and I wanted to let people know that I will apparently NOT have my old cell phone when I get back to the U.S. because I left my SIM card at my site.

So, if you want me to get ahold of you, drop me an email or post on here or write on my facebook wall or something, because I also do not have your phone number. See some of you soon! Peace.

14 July, 2008

July: The month that got away…

I hope I don’t keep saying things like this, but July is flying. I have been meaning to write for a long time, but one thing follows another and it seems like there is never enough time. I last left you all with news of work revving up here, and it has continued to do so. Teaching lessons and the bottle project are both going well at school; although I have not been in over three weeks, so that could be a rude awakening for me when I show up on Monday. I have not been slacking, but I have not been at school.

On Friday the 20th of June, we had our Teacher’s Day celebration. This consisted of going to a restaurant with all the teachers from our municipality and having a lunch and some presentations of awards. Of course, I am in Guatemala, so we also had to perform for one another. I was actually up in front of everyone twice, once with all of my teachers as we performed a dance to Thriller (check it out… ridiculous!) and the second time I was pulled up without knowing what it was for with my director. As it turns out, we had to prove our masculinity with a “campesino yell.” Think the high pitched crying noise that one might hear in a ranchera song, very stereotypically “Aaaaiyy Haaa,” and you’re just about there, you just have to add a gringo doing it in front of 500 of his “peers.” I won a clock, although I am not sure that it was because I was best, only the most unique.

On June 25th a small group from Michigan Tech arrived to try and get some work done on Fuego and Santiaguito. We spent the day getting supplies and arranging last minute details and on Thursday the 26th we set off for Fuego. After some mighty driving by one John Lyons and about an hour and a half hike we arrived to our camp site in between Acatenango and Fuego. From there we would climb every day up the side of Fuego to our observation point on La Meseta with a great view of the cone… or it would have been if it hadn’t been so blasted foggy. We spent Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and Monday nights camping and each day we set out full of hope that today would be the day that the clouds would part and we would be able to see the volcano and get some work done. Unfortunately it is the rainy season here in Guatemala, and we were under a tropical depression the entire time we were on the mountain. We had about an hour of actual visibility, and the rest of the time we sat in the clouds with all of our equipment waiting for it to clear up. The Care Bears, Rainbow Bright, and any other beloved cartoon characters that I grew up watching are liars; living in the clouds is not fun. It is cold, windy, and boring.

We were originally going to head immediately to Santa Maria to try and get some thermal images of the Caliente dome of Santiaguito, but due to our less than great prospects of actually being able to see the dome from the top of Santa Maria due to the lingering tropical depression, the group decided it would be better to try their luck a little later in the week before they had to head home. This meant that I was able to attend an all volunteer conference at our training center in Santa Lucia on “Working as a Professional in Guatemala” as well as go to the fourth of July party that the Peace Corps had for all of us volunteers. It was a great time and the first chance I have had to see a lot of fellow volunteers in one place. There are kind of a lot of us for such a small country, but everyone seems pretty active at their sites, so I guess we are doing something right. I just need to try and remember a lot of new names…

On Sunday I did end up making the trip with the Michigan group up Santa Maria. We left Xela at 11:00 PM and started our ascent in hopes that we would get some good pre dawn images of the dome without a lot of ambient heating of the ground from sun light. We arrived at the top around 3 AM and set up a tent to protect us from the wind and dampness because, you guessed it, it was cloudy. We sat in the tent until about 8 AM when we finally gave up and got ready to head down again, utterly defeated. Graciously, the clouds decided to give us a break and we got about an hour of observation time in and hopefully some good shots with the thermal camera.

I got back to my site on Monday at around 3 in the afternoon, and my neighbors spent a good amount of time teasing me that they thought I had left for good (I was gone 12 days and I had told everyone what I was leaving for and to please watch my house). After I was home about two hours my neighbor from behind came to my door asking if by any chance I had seen an “animalito” anywhere in my house since I had been back. This intrigued me, so I asked what kind of little animal she thought I might have seen in my house, and she replied, “A duck.”

“Well, no, I don’t think so. I imagine I would have noticed a duck in my house, the house is not very large.”

“All right, well, if you see it, will you catch it and bring it over?”
“Sure Doña Sofia, I’ll bring your duck if I see it.”

Thankfully the mystery was solved about 15 minutes later when the duck turned up at my next door neighbor’s house. It was a close call though, because two of the dogs seemed to be ready to make off with the thing like a chew toy, but they couldn’t get to it because it was hiding behind a piece of discarded fence material. There’s never a dull moment in Las Marias.

Another fun story, there is a nick name that gringos have for the bluebird school buses that traverse the country and serve as our main form of transport in Guatemala: Chicken Buses. Now these buses are referred to as chicken buses because they are used to transport everything, from people to, well, chickens. I have personally experienced many chickens running underfoot on these buses, as well as dogs and pigs tied to the roof racks among other assorted oddities. However, on my way to Xela this weekend I had my first experience of riding on a bus where there were more chickens than people. I noticed a funny smell when I got on the bus at my stop, which isn’t in itself anything out of the ordinary. For this reason it took me a good five minutes to realize that all the boxes in the over head racks and under the seats were filled with about 50 newly hatched chicks each, and that these “animalitos” were responsible for that high pitched squeaky sound I had originally blamed on the bus itself. Ah livestock…

Our training group has our “Re-connect” conference next week. This is basically a chance to bring us all back in and talk about how the first three months of service have gone and make sure that none of us are too crazy yet. And after that, I fly home to celebrate the matrimony of Jared Paul List and Brooke Lindsay Allen. I’ll be stateside for about 7 days, from the 23rd at 9 PM until the 30th around 8 AM, so if you call my old cell phone number, odds are I will answer it during those times. I’m already seeing it as a whirlwind trip, and I will try to see as many people as I can, but if I miss you, please know that it was not on purpose. I’m going to be a little lost adjusting to all the bright lights and fancy machines of the United States… I hear they have these machines that control the climate of entire houses, and these other ones that wash dishes all by themselves. I hear there’s even one that runs around a house and sucks up dirt right out of these things called carpets… crazy. It’s been a little over six months since I’ve been home last, which might not sound like much, but I am a little worried that a week isn’t going to cut it. Wish me luck, and maybe I’ll be seeing some of you soon. In the meantime, here are some new pictures. Take care! Peace.

11 June, 2008

Turning 24 and Saying So Long

Life continues here in Las Marias, but things are getting busy. Two weeks ago my APCD (read boss for people who aren’t required to speak in acronyms) visited my site and met with all of my counterpart agencies and me. He told me he was happy with my progress thus far and left me and my counterparts with lots of ideas for directions in which our work can go. In the school, we scheduled a day for a teacher workshop. At the observatory we set up a plan for a possible community outreach program, and at the mayor’s office I was invited to be part of the planning committee for the new municipal disaster plan. All in all it was a very productive visit.

So heading into last week I was very excited to get a good start on work. Then Alma and Arthur decided to pay Guatemala a visit. Up to this point, I have become very accustomed to afternoon rainstorms putting an early halt to the day. However, waking up Monday morning and going to school in a decently heavy rain and finding neither teachers nor students was a bit perplexing to me. School apparently is canceled when it rains because the pounding on the tin roofs of the classrooms make verbal communication and thus teaching and learning nearly impossible. This may seem like a logical solution, but the effect is somewhat more impressive when one considers that there are only two seasons in Guatemala: rainy and dry. It rained all day on Monday and Tuesday, so I couldn’t go up to the observatory to work either. I received notice from Peace Corps that due to bad road conditions I was put on Standfast, meaning that I was not permitted to leave my site. So I wound up sitting on my porch reading books and waiting for the rain to stop. Let’s just say that I hope we have two years of light hurricane seasons.

The rain finally quit about 4 PM on Tuesday, which was good because I was supposed to have a meeting with our Village Council at 6. I arrived on time, everyone else was there by half past the hour, and we started the meeting. I noticed that none of the women members were present, which was slightly out of the ordinary, but with all the rain I wasn’t sure what extra responsibilities the women of the house might have and so I figured I just missed something. By 7:30 we had finished all the business items, and all of the sudden the ladies showed up carrying a huge amount of food. It turns out they had planned a birthday dinner for me, complete with cake, firecrackers, and the traditional “Happy Birthday” song sung in bad English. It was a wonderfully warm gesture and left me feeling very grateful to have been placed in such a great community. I was only sad because I didn’t bring my camera and the only pictures I have were taken on my phone.

Unfortunately, a great day was followed up with some really hard news. One of my best friends in Peace Corps is being Medically Separated from our program because she had an allergic reaction to peanuts. Although she was cleared for service initially, the Washington medical office decided that the reaction was severe enough to bring her home. There is still a slight chance that she might be coming back if she can appeal the decision, but the chances are pretty slim. The decision leaves me not only very sad to be losing a terrific friend and colleague, but also a bit angry and apprehensive about the way Peace Corps Washington handled the situation. If a prior condition acting up is grounds for Medical Separation, despite the commitment of the volunteer or the economic investment of the government, it makes it hard for me as a volunteer to feel secure and supported in my work here. She literally found out Wednesday of the decision and is flying home on Thursday. A complete life change in the span of a week seems to me cruel and unjust, not to mention a pretty sorry way to show appreciation for someone who was willing to train for 3 months to serve her country for 2 years.

I have begun actually presenting lessons in the school this week. I am excited by this because now the teachers and students alike are able to see me doing something productive rather than just hanging out a few days a week. I think the students responded very well, and the teachers told me that they thought I did a good job presenting. I was impressed by the students’ levels of interest and by the teachers’ commitment to working alongside me while we both presented the lesson. Many volunteers aren’t so lucky.

I had a meeting last week with my principle and the president of the village council and we had a meeting with all of my teachers today, and we will be embarking on a community trash collection program/construction project. We will basically be having students collect garbage, asking them to pack the garbage into plastic pop bottles, and using these accumulated bottles to build a storage shed for the school. The director and the president had seen an article in the paper about another group of Peace Corps Volunteers who helped to make an entire two room school out of bottles and decided that this would be something they wanted to get done in our community.

The teachers will be teaching the kids to fill up the bottles correctly on Friday, and each student will be responsible for filling one bottle with trash from the community each week from now until the end of August, at which point we hope to have around 4,000 bottles to build our shed. My job between then and now is to figure out what else we need other than bottles to get the job done. The challenge for me is that there were three volunteers working on the bottle school, whereas there will only be one working on the bottle shed…

So begins June. I’ve officially been in country for 5 whole months, which to me seems at the same time too big and too small a number. I’m sure that sensation will not leave me for the rest of my time here. I am thrilled to know that as of writing this entry the Cubs have the best record in baseball and are also the only team to have not lost three in a row this season. What a great 100 year anniversary, let’s just hope they keep it up. Know that I am jealous of anyone who can spend time watching a baseball game on TV, almost as jealous as I am of people who can eat a nice grilled steak. I’ll be home in July for a week and you can bet that I will be trying to get as much of those two things as I can. In the meantime, I hope everyone is well, and I have really appreciated all the emails, keep ‘em coming! Peace.

16 May, 2008

New Photos

Click here to check out some new pictures!

12 May, 2008

Mother's Day

I really don’t know how to start this entry. It has been awhile since my last update, so I feel like I have to write something, but honestly life has been pretty routine over the past two weeks. I get up around 5 AM every day, and depending on the day have one of two standard schedules. Three days a week I climb into the back of a small semi trailer to ride with the workers through the coffee and macadamia nut fincas, stop by the finca office for a cup of coffee and head up to the volcano observatory to spend the morning collecting data, talking with the observers, and basically getting to know Santiaguito. The other two mornings, I go for a run while the temperature is still cool enough to permit it, and then head to school which starts at 7:30. I use my afternoons to do planning work, go shopping, and generally prepare for the next day, and I usually run up to Xela or down to Retauhueleu to buy harder to find items like cheese and peanut butter on Saturday or Sunday.

My house has become the coolest place in town to hang out for anyone under the age of 12 who isn’t out playing marbles. I am usually surrounded by anywhere from 6 to 15 kids just hanging out on my porch, playing with the giant floor puzzles that Adam left for me or climbing my trees to get a fruit called a cushin (it has a green husk that holds a lot of big seeds inside, and you eat the tissue that surrounds the seeds, and it is kind of shaped like a giant bean pod). My best friend in site therefore is currently an 8 year old boy named Oliver.

Work is going well, and I feel that I am setting up some decent projects for myself. The trash management project with the municipality has taken a back seat as of right now, for two reasons. First, I am being kept very busy with my primary responsibilities at the school and the observatory, and second because the municipal offices have been pretty busy with another project that I have nothing to do with. I plan on meeting with the mayor at the end of this month when my boss from Peace Corps comes out to visit me to try and figure out some kind of time frame for this project, because I do think the people of my village are very interested in finding a solution to this issue.

My first big holiday in site happened last Friday, when the school had its Mother’s Day celebration. Mother’s Day here is always celebrated on the 10th of May regardless of what day of the week it falls on. It is a very big day in the schools and classes were basically canceled in order to have the celebration. Students got together and performed dances, sang songs, and read poems to the assembled group of mothers, and the teachers prepared games for the moms to play. My game ended up being a watermelon eating contest, which ended up being a big hit. I had 15 mothers get up in front of everyone and inhale melon. It was very fun to watch, and I would put the woman who won up against anyone from back home, she was a champ.

The celebration also culminated with a mother beauty pageant, which was very interesting. The teachers called for volunteers on the spot to participate in the activity, and they had to come up in front of the group and perform a talent. The more conservative contestants spoke about what a wonderful privilege and great responsibility motherhood is, and this got a lot of the other mother’s crying. A few of the mom’s didn’t have anything, so after some hooting and hollering from the crowd, they ended up saying they would dance if they had a partner. Obviously the funniest person to dance with would be the giant gringo standing in the back taking pictures, so I suddenly became part of two contestant’s talents. The winner of the pageant was a mother who got up and sang a song about losing her mother, which made almost everyone cry. Apparently tugging on people’s heartstrings was a more effective technique than making them laugh, but maybe I shouldn’t take it so personally.

I hope everyone had a great Mother’s day back home. I got to call my mom and grandma, so it was almost like being home… okay, not really, but it was good to talk to them anyway. Peace.

27 April, 2008

Expectations, Wedding, and a little Indiana Jones

The last three weeks have been pretty great. I feel that I am settling into a routine, and that I am feeling perhaps a little too comfortable already, for only having spent four weeks here. Adam left for the States on Sunday, so last week was really all about him saying good bye to people and passing the torch as it were. There were a lot of tears; Adam really did a great job here over the past two years and has set a pretty high set of expectations to live up to, which is great for me because people are already looking to start working!

Last Friday Adam gave his final presentation at INSIVUMEH to our bosses, Gustavo Chigna and Flavio Linares, as well as a couple of other interested parties around the office. It went well, but a large part at the end was dedicated to future work, which is code for what they want me to do. It was good to hear them voice their wishes and I think that I will be able to jump on board.

I honestly wasn’t expecting to be able to jump into work this quickly, as most people I have spoken to about Peace Corps life had me expecting to spend my first three to six months preparing an action plan and getting to know people, but I am finding that I am meeting scores of people every day (which is tricky because I am bad with names as it is, and being introduced to 12 people who tell you their first, middle, last, and mother’s maiden names, the majority of which are slightly difficult to pronounce usually leaves my head spinning by the afternoon. Luckily most people are very understanding and willing to tell me their names a few times.

Friday night I got to spend some time with some other volunteers in Antigua, which was nice considering I hadn’t seen them since we left for site. Saturday I headed up the mountain to my training community with my friend Joey for my host brother’s wedding. He’s been unido (literally united, but used here to signify a common law marriage) for a few years and has a child of about 4, but they haven’t had enough money to get married in the church until now.

It was a very interesting wedding, as it was a blend of catholic and evangelical practices. I should probably start here by explaining that Guatemalans generally fall into one of two religious identities: catolicos or evangelicos, and these very often compete with each other. If you are not catholic here, you are evangelic. To be Evangelic means that one does not drink, generally does not dance, and goes to culto (service) at least once a week. Practicing Catholics go to mass when the priest can make it to town or travel into a bigger city for Sunday mass. Sometimes these practices are also suplimented by traditional Mayan beliefs, but the areas in which I have lived are too ladino to be able to see much evidence of this.

Weddings are said to either be evangelico or catolico based on the form of entertainment, not necessarily based on the church service. Catholic weddings usually include drinking and a marimba for dancing, evangelic weddings have more of a prayer service for a reception, and usually no one dances. In this sense, my host brother’s wedding was evangelico despite his having been wed in the Catholic Church by the parish priest.

The reception was actually much more fun than Joey and I had been led to believe that it was going to be. The wedding singer did focus on Christian music, but he was an excellent singer and apparently has a radio show out of Guatemala City. His preaching breaks were very well done and aimed at practicing good family life, and were peppered with a lot of humor. It was also great to not be treated like a guest in the house for once. We were allowed to help set up, serve the other guests, and to clean up when everything was done. We ate with the immediate family after all the other guests had been served, and we got to share in some of the jokes at the end of the night. We both agreed that we were pretty lucky to have gotten so close to these people.

Sunday morning we met up in Antigua for breakfast with the other volunteers that were in town again, and before I got on the bus, I bought bootlegged copies of the Indiana Jones movies. They are very good quality and have both English and Spanish language tracks, so on Monday afternoon I had a screening for some of the neighbor kids of Raiders of the Lost Ark. I figure that there is no better way for me to share American culture than by exposing kids to real quality American cinema, and not just the Steven Segal crap they see on TV, not that I have anything against Steven Segal.

I actually got to feel like a trained professional that people have been telling me that I am on Friday and Saturday when Gustavo came up to the observatory and told me that I was going to spend the rest of the day installing a DOAS (Differential Optical Absorption Spectroscopy) system from NOVAC (Network for Observation of Volcanic and Atmospheric Change). It was actually the same type of equipment I had helped install when I was in Mexico last summer, so I knew a lot about what we were doing and was actually able to contribute some useful ideas. We ended up staying the night up at the observatory and working again Saturday morning.

When I got home on Saturday afternoon I was planning on just doing some laundry and taking it easy, but I was treated to an impromptu marimba concert on my frnt porch. One of my homestay dad's brothers came over with two of his buddies and just started jamming. I was able to pull out my computer and record a few songs, so if I can figure it out, I'll try to post the files.

This weekend marks the end of my first month, which also means that I only have 100 more weeks as a Peace Corps volunteer, so I’m going to buy myself an ice cream cone, and some tortillas for the week. Peace,


11 April, 2008

Fire and Water

Week two in site is coming to a close, and I stayed in my little village the whole week if you don’t count trips to run into the nearest town to check e-mail and buy vegetables. It was my first week alone at site, and I think it went really well. At my school, I sat in on a few classes and went to a PTA meeting, and my biggest headache (literally) came from a low beam in the principal’s office that I am the only one tall enough at the school to have it be a bother. After my school director commented that Adam was the only other person to have had a problem with said beam, I named the beam “Mata Gringos” or gringo killer, and got my only intentional laugh involving the load bearing pain in my neck of the week, the others all came from more slapstick situations.

At the volcano observatory I started trying to take some gas measurements from Santiaguito, but visibility is usually pretty sketchy and almost impossible after 9:00, so I am lucky to get an hour of actual observation time, and it hasn’t been cloud free yet so the data isn’t really good. I did get to know the observer on duty a bit though. He’s in his late thirties I think, has lived in the area all his life, and likes to talk. I’m pretty sure he’ll be a really good resource for when I want to start community interviews. I get to work with the other observer next week, as they work every other week, and I hear he is pretty cool too.

My afternoons have been full of hand washing laundry and cooking dinner without the aid of appliances. I have decided that I am a lousy cook. It isn’t that my meals aren’t palatable, but that they never end up in the same place that they started. For example, I was going to make boiled potatoes and carrots with a fried sausage on Monday night, but it ended up being something much closer to hash. I over cooked the potatoes, under cooked the carrots, and didn’t quite have my act together with the sausage. As nothing was burned, I cut up the carrots and left them in a minute longer while I grabbed some butter, threw it on the potatoes, mashed them up and mixed in the sausage and finally the carrots. It just goes to prove that butter can fix anything. The rains at night are pretty crazy. They usually are done by around 10 PM, but as this is typically loooong past this guy’s bed time, I don’t get to enjoy the quiet of the evening.

When the rain starts, everything stops. People close up shop because no one will come in. If people are visiting somewhere when it starts, they typically wait wherever they are until it stops, and the owners of the location are very hospitable. I was in a little comedor today in the town close by when the rain kicked up, and if I hadn’t been able to point out the micro that was just leaving to go back to Las Marias, I am confident that the lady who runs the place would have made me stay the night, because by the time it ended up stopping all the buses were done running for the day. The people look at me like I’m a moron when I go out in the stuff; the gringo who doesn’t even have enough sense to come in out of the rain is supposed to be teaching them about the environment. Oh well... Peace.

08 April, 2008

Life under the mango tree...

I successfully swore in as a Volunteer in the United States Peace Corps a week ago Thursday, and the first week as a volunteer has been an interesting one. The weekend of swear in was a lot of fun, as our training class basically got to just hang out in Antigua before going out to our respective sites throughout the country. Some people left Saturday, others Sunday depending on how far away their sites were. Initially I was pretty apprehensive about the move because there are no buses out of San Miguel Milpas Altas on Sundays. This left me with the prospect of hauling two back packs and a huge nylon bag full of crap over the two hills and thirty minute walk that stand between San Miguel and the nearest transportation. The packing process was pretty hilarious actually, as my host mother Doña Lidia decided that the best way to transport all of my stuff was to put it into one bundle that stood about a meter tall and weighed easily 75 pounds and carry it all using a milcopan (head strap) in the traditional way. I obviously am not nearly as Guatemalan as Doña Lidia thinks I am though, because when I tried to lift the bag in this manner my neck nearly snapped off at the shoulders. Thankfully, I was able to arrange transportation out of San Miguel last Sunday morning with Jesse’s host grandfather.

I got into Las Marias just before noon, having made great time (about 4 1/2 hours by bus from Antigua), dropped my luggage off at the house where I am spending my first three months, and called Adam, the volunteer who I am replacing to let him know I had arrived. He surprised me by telling me that Drew, a civil engineering Masters International student who did his work in Jamaica and who I had gotten to know briefly while he was working on his thesis this fall up at Tech, was visiting with his fiancé. So I slipped my swim trunks on and headed off with them to Antiguo Palmar, the old site of the municipal head that they moved do to intense lahar activity in the mid ‘80s. The river that cut a canyon through the town thirty years ago and then again about ten years ago is heated at its source by a lava flow from Santiaguito and cooled down as it descends by a series of tributaries as they enter the main river. The locals have set up a few make shift damns to trap the water and form a series of pools that make great heated swimming holes. After a few hours of enjoyment, Drew and his fiancé left for Xela/Quetaltenango (different names for the same town) which is about an hour away, Adam went to his place, and I headed home to arrange my things and settle in for the first night.

I have spent the rest of the week setting up my living conditions here. They are very comfortable, in fact I think a little too comfortable, unless you take into account the mango tree. I seem to have arrived right in the heart of mango season here in Las Marias, which is great because it means an abundant supply of humongous (seriously the size of my two fists put together) juicy mangos. However, seeing as my lamina roof is placed directly under one of these delicious fruit trees, I have been besieged by mango bombs morning, noon and (the worst) night. The five pound terrors fall down onto the tin roof with a sound like gun shots right above my head. During the day I have already gotten used to the noises, and I’m not here that much during the day anyway, but when one falls at 3 or 4 AM… let’s just say I am very glad to be slightly dehydrated due to the heat and not as well fed this week at these moments, it’s that startling. I really hope that the mango season is a short one for this particular tree.

I’m going to be working the next few weeks on figuring out where I fit in to this place they call Las Marias. The work that I was worried that I would have to start immediately upon arrival seems to have lost its urgency in the past two weeks, which is a huge relief. I can start slowly and build up my own steam without having to jump on Adam’s train as he is leaving. It is intimidating enough walking around with him as he says good bye to what are now good friends while I am saying hello and struggling to remember everyone’s combination of four names that they introduce themselves with and which of these correspond to the nicknames they are called by and known by around town. At least everyone is friendly and most are very patient, and everyone expresses to me how much they hope that I like the place. The person who seems to be the most interested in speaking with me is the town drunk who I have to walk by three or four times a day, but I am hoping that will change as other people get to know me.

I hope that April and the beginning of the baseball season finds you all well. I am happy to report that although I don’t have any place that is close where I could catch the occasional game if I so desired, the news paper does have a small section where they usually put one story from the big leagues as well as the scores from the previous day, so I will be able to remotely follow the great American pastime as long as I occasionally supplement my diet with occasional trips to the internet café. Let me know how you all are doing, I really like getting emails, and I promise that I will respond!! Peace.

24 March, 2008

Carrying the cross... and Jesus too.

These last few weeks have been full ones, with a lot of work, a lot of planning, and a lot of thinking about how the next two years of service are going to go. As far as finishing up training goes, we taught our last lessons at the school here in San Miguel two weeks ago, and we spent last week building a three stoves, a floor, and a drainage ditch for the kitchen at the school which houses grades K-2 for the town. Our only remaining activity at the school will be an “environmental day” that we will celebrate this week.

I’ve been out to visit my site now twice, and I am definitely itching to get out and get started. I will be jumping right into work. In the school, I am expected to kick off a trash management education campaign. This will be a continuation of Adam’s solid waste management SPA project (Small Project Assistance funds from USAID for Peace Corps volunteers). In conjunction with the education campaign in the school, I think that I will be working with the COCODE (Council for Community Development) of the aldea (village) of Las Marias and the municipal offices of El Palmar to figure out some kind of sanitary landfill situation and/or recycling project for the community. I am slightly worried that the gap of time between now and when I will be arriving and starting work is a bit large and that the delay could mean more of a struggle to get people on board with the project, but there really isn’t much I can do until April.

I will be living with a family for the first three months of my service; however, I will be feeding myself and doing my own laundry, things I haven’t had to do so far and additional reasons why I am going to miss my present host family when I leave next week. Things have been wonderful here in San Miguel and despite my rants about being treated like a child, training has been a pretty comfortable environment. I am not expecting the rest of this experience to follow suit. I’m really going to miss the constant companionship of the other trainees, especially those who have been living in San Miguel with me. Having other gringos close by to complain too and laugh at the many awkward situations that we find ourselves in on an hourly basis is a luxury I am really going to miss. The closest volunteer to me will be about an hour and a half away, and he only has transportation in and out of his site a few times a day.

In addition to running around this week trying to finish up training activities, it has also been Holy Week. Semana Santa in Guatemala is a pretty big deal, and as we had been told and found out this week, the country basically shuts down for the week, unless you’re business is tourism. Schools and government offices are closed, and many businesses shut their doors. The way to celebrate things in this area is by making alfombras (literally carpets with designs made out of saw dust, pine needles, fruit, candles, and almost about anything else) and then having large processions carrying andarias (giant floats without wheels) that pass over the top of them as they move throughout the town.

Last Saturday night after coming back from our site visit a few other trainees and I went down to Antigua to work on an alfombra that was being made by one of the teachers from our school. When we went back to Antigua on Palm Sunday to see the processions, we couldn’t get close enough to see our finished product because of the amount of people in town. We took advantage of the lack of children in the school on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday to complete our construction projects, and on Thursday night we had our own alfombras and procession of an andaria through San Miguel.

This was a pretty interesting spectacle for us because the gringos in town got to help carry our andaria. If you look at the pictures, you see that every one grabs a side and rests the thing on their shoulder. This works great as long as everyone is arranged in proper height order so you have a constant slope for the weight of the andaria is distributed evenly. Joey and I went on Wednesday night to the church to get measured for our place in line, and it turns out we are taller than everyone else in our aldea by a cool two inches, and taller than the average carrier by at least a head. This meant that in order to carry the andaria, we could try and stand up straight which meant carrying at least four other people’s weight (this proved to be impossible, the darn thing was just too heavy) or we could figure out how to slouch and get closer to the height at which everyone else was carrying it. We had four rotations of about fifteen minutes each, but somehow we almost always ended up carrying through two rotations. So we had half hour shifts from when we left at 5:45 until we got back to the church at 10. The only other comment I have is that my back is really killing me… still.

On Friday, I was awoken at 4 in the morning by the pounding of my host mother’s mighty fist against my window telling me that I had better hurry up and get ready because the bus was going to leave without us. By 4:30 I was sitting on the camionetta with my host parents, my host sister, two of my host brothers and six of my host nieces and nephews descending the hill to Antigua. The bus let us off on the outskirts of town because most of the streets were closed off and we walked about a half mile to where the really big processions were and saw a bunch of the really elaborate alfombras. As an experience, it felt a lot like going to see a combination of the Christmas window displays and the Thanksgiving parade in Chicago… at 5 AM. We took the bus back around 9 and had breakfast at 10. By noon, the family was ready to hit the road again to go back to see more and we took one of the last buses home at around 1 in the morning after seeing what I think may have been one of the final processions of the day, but who knows. It is no wonder that Easter Sunday isn’t as big of a deal here, they’re still tired from Good Friday!

On Easter, the other trainees from San Miguel and I cooked a lunch for our homestay families. Joey had the great idea to cook some American chili, and Briana made potato salad, and although we are not exactly convinced they actually liked the food, they all apparently appreciated the gesture.

This will probably be my last entry as a trainee, as we officially swear in for duty on Thursday the 27th, and I’ll be in my site on Monday the 30th, ready to get down to business. I hear that the Chicago area got pounded with some late Easter snow yesterday, so I hope everyone is dealing with that alright. If you need a break, just remember they call Guatemala the country of eternal spring, and where I’m going next week is definitely hot and tropical, so plan your visits now! Peace.

03 March, 2008

Just for fun

Just for fun:

American things in Guatemala that make me happy:

  • Wendy’s, specifically the Baconator and Frosty. When I had a frosty about 2 weeks ago, I literally let out a moan of delight when the lovely chocolate concoction began falling out of the machine.
  • Waffles at the waffle house. What a beautiful idea, to put a waffle house in Guatemala.
  • Wrestling T-Shirts. 2 months ago I didn’t know who John Cena was. Now I am looking everywhere for a shirt with his picture on it.
  • My mustache and long hair. Yes, I am sporting a blonde, dirty looking, mustache. It is disgusting, but we (the other Environmental Education Trainees from my cycle and I) have decided to celebrate Mustache March. It is actually probably the only time in my life where a mustache will make me more professionally credible than less.
  • I also love riding in the back of pickup trucks.

P.S. My host mom can beat up your dad.


29 February, 2008

Individual Directed Activity

I just got back from my first visit to my site. It wasn’t technically considered a site visit, because I still haven’t technically received my site assignment, which happens on Monday. So this was considered an Individual Directed Activity, although for all intents and purposes it was a site visit. I hit the camionetas (retrofitted school busses with lots of Guatemalan flair if I haven’t mentioned them before) at 8 AM Sunday morning and got to the entrada to Nuevo El Palmar (they call it Nuevo because Antigua El Palmar was literally cut in half by lahar activity about 20 years back, and it is bad for business to have a giant gorge running through your central plaza if you are supposed to be seat of a municipality) at around 2 PM that same afternoon. From the entrada, I proceeded to jump into the back of a pickup truck loaded with finca workers and headed on into Las Marias, the community in which I will be working for the next two years. Because I have a special knack for transportation screw ups, I decided that rather than get off in Las Marias proper, I would stay in the truck until it stopped, which was about two kilometers past town, but when I had been standing looking confused not to be in a town for about 30 seconds, people started asking me if I was looking for another gringo that lived around there, I said yes, and got a ride back into town where a little girl walked me to Adam Blankebicker’s front door.

Adam has done some pretty great work in the last two years, and it seemed to me by all the warm welcomes that I will have some pretty big shoes to fill and some pretty high expectations to meet, but at the same time I will have a community that is anxious to work with me on all sorts of projects. I got to witness an all community meeting where the Water Committee introduced Adam’s Small Project Assistance project (a special source of funds available to PCV’s through USAID), I had the opportunity to meet all of the teachers that I will be working with, talk with one of the two members of the Santiaguito Observatory staff, and even meet with the Alcaldeza (female mayor, one of the six in the whole country) of the municipality.

All in all, I am psyched to be looking at going into such a great site, with so many opportunities to work with motivated people. I am pretty nervous too, but I think that will die down once I start working. I posted a few pictures, and I promise to take more the next time I get out there, which should be in another week or so. Happy leap day! Peace.

21 February, 2008

Training Stories or Why I'm 14 Years Old Again

It’s been a few weeks since the last entry, and we have been super busy. We had to give a few classes in the last two weeks, to preschoolers and highschoolers and everyone in between. We are also formulating a project to do in our training communities, which requires a lot of meetings in an already tight schedule, but so far so good.

So where to start? We just got back from a weeklong trip to visit four different volunteers in their sites and to see what kind of work possibilities there are in our program. Basically the answer I came away with is that I can do whatever I want as long as I am working. Ideally, the environmental education volunteer works for two years with three (in my case two because of the MI program) schools and attempts to get them to a point where the school can be certified as an Environmentally Friendly school, which means that the students and teachers become environmentally “conscious” and the physical building of the school becomes a place where trash and other human waste are managed properly and hygienically.

Now, the school system here is run a bit differently than back home. First off, school theoretically runs nationwide from January 1st to the end of October everyday from 8:00 AM to noon, with a week vacation for Holy Week, and then maybe a two week vacation in July when there is usually a two week break in the rain fall as well (it is supposed to rain from April to August or September almost nonstop). This schedule can be interrupted at any time for any number of reasons, from teacher strike to a teacher calling in sick to a “hey, I don’t feel like school today” day. I am told that you almost have to ask on a day by day basis whether or not there will be school the next day, and sometimes that isn’t even reliable.

Considering that we are not expected to teach whole classes or even be in schools every day of the week, even if there were some sort of reliable schedule, we could possibly have a lot of free time. This is where secondary projects come in. We have free reign to do any sort of project that our community may deem necessary, so basically I could be doing anything from building a school out of bottles to digging garbage dumps to building guitars to organizing youth groups to … well you get the idea. The things I just mentioned by the way are all projects being carried out by other Environmental Ed volunteers. This is extremely liberating in the fact that I will really be able to pursue projects my strengths will be able to complement, and a little daunting in that I will be majorly responsible for pursuing community development projects at my site. This would be less daunting if I hadn’t arrived in country hearing so many botched development stories from so many different sources. I guess it either means I will be prepared to avoid mistakes, or that I will avoid the small mistakes and find my own gigantic ones!

I found out that I will be visiting Adam’s site at Las Marias (outside of El Palmar, south of Xela/Quetzaltenango, and most probably my future site) on Sunday of this week, so that is pretty great. I have a ton to ask him and I am glad to have some time away from the regular rigors of training.

This is probably a good point to address what training is like on a day to day basis. I think the best way to describe it is that I have become a 14 year old boy again, only now I can grow a beard. I actually made a list with one of my friends and training site mates, Joey Delgado (http://guactalk.blogspot.com/) of things that made us sure we were 14 again. Enjoy!

1. My mom does my laundry because I can’t. It’s not really that I can’t it’s just that I don’t beat the living hell out of every piece of cloth against the stone, and therefore she doesn’t believe my clothes are clean when I wash them.

2. I have to be home before dark. I stayed at a friend’s house to watch the super bowl. I told my host mom I would be home late. She called me at 7, I told her the game was about half way over. She called me at 8, I told her there was still a whole other quarter. She called me at 9, I told her we were going to be leaving shortly. She called me at 9:45 and I was walking home in a place without cell reception and didn’t get the call. She met me at the front gate, and the first thing she asked me was if I had been drinking. When I told her truthfully that I had not had even a sip the whole night and that she could call the host mom of the volunteer whose house I had been at with the other volunteers from my town, she said it was good, because if I had been drinking she would have been “muy muy enojada” or very very angry. She then proceeded to only lecture me on the dangers of walking home after dark, and especially so late after dark. In my defense, I was still home before 10. In her defense, walking home from the next town over in complete and total darkness was pretty freaking terrifying, even though I was with two other guys who are also bigger than 90% of Guatemaltecos.

3. I spend my weeknights (and most weekend nights as well) doing homework, playing video games, reading books, and going to bed by 9:00. There just isn’t anything else to do when your whole family is ready for bed by 8:30 and gets up at 4.

4. I get woken up on Sunday mornings (the only day I could feasibly sleep in) by my dad blasting his favorite music on the radio. The only differences are that instead of being woken up at 8:30 by Oldies 104.3, I’m woken up at 5:30 by “TODA MACINA!!!! PURO ÉXITOS!!!” (big base voice yelling) which is Ranchero music. For those of you who don’t know, that’s the tuba polka music.

5. The girls get together for sleepovers. There is only one female volunteer living here in San Miguel and only one living in Magdalena (the next town over), so they get together every so often for “girl time.”

6. We sleep in bunk beds. On our field based training, we literally slept in bunk beds like you would a summer camp and in order to avoid hearing the girls talking in the next room about what crushes they had, us guys told dirty jokes.

7. My mom packs my lunch. I really enjoy this actually.

8. My mom wakes me up if I hit the snooze alarm.

9. My mom takes care of me when I’m sick.

10. My mom tells me to go to bed if my light is on past 9:00 PM.

11. I am currently reading The Lord of the Rings, although it is only because I just finished The Brothers Karamazov.

12. I have to do chores. These are slightly different than the ones I did as a teen though. For example, I sweep, not vacuum. I push the vegetable wheelbarrow around town on Sunday mornings while my mother sells them instead of mowing the lawn. I put water on the dirt instead of the lawn because the grass is fine, but the dirt gets dusty if we don’t water it. Oh, and I can’t leave in the morning before my bed is made.

13. The topic around the lunch table is always either soccer or WWF wrestling, and I am dead serious.

14. Every one of my friends is either single or has not seen their significant other in 6 weeks, and are also preoccupied with bodily functions, so almost any complete sentence ends with somebody finding a way to make it dirty. All our minds are “in the gutter” as it were.

15. The single greatest joy in life is once again ice cream, cake, or candy.

16. We had a 3 hour sex ed talk, which included watching a baby being born, AIDS testimonies, and our Medical Officer wearing a giant condom hat.

17. The only professional tools I have been issued thus far are markers, glue, scissors, tape, and poster board.

18. I occasionally babysit little girls of ages 8, 6, and 4. At least they’re cute.

19. Pizza = Special Occasion

20. Someone else wants to know where I am at all times. Gotta love the Security Officer.
Hope you enjoyed that. Sorry it was so long. I put some new pics up on the facebook album and I hope to put more up next week along with another blog post after I get back from visiting Adam. Until then, thanks for the emails, the comments, the wall posts, and the thoughts and prayers. By the by, I was pretty nasty sick for about a week and a half with some weird lung stuff, but I’m on antibiotics and decongestants, and I am feeling a lot better, so thanks for the thoughts there too. I miss you all, and please keep emails coming! If anyone wants to call me for any reason, my number is on facebook, and its 15 cents a minute on skype, just call after 8 PM because otherwise I might be busy or with the family.


28 January, 2008

Week 2

I am now completely done with 2 full weeks of training, and only 9 more to go! We met our teachers that we will be working with last week, and this week we should actually have some time to figure out what it is exactly we will be doing. There is some talk about helping some of the teachers finish a grant to get a water tank and purification system set up at the school as well so that the kids don’t have to bring a 3 liter bottle of water every Monday so that they will be able to wash their hands. We are scheduled to be in the classrooms with our first lesson at the beginning of next week, so that’s pretty cool. The closer I get to actually working the happier I will be.

My homestay family is awesome, and apparently also related to almost everyone in town. Jesse, Joey, Briana and I are basically famous, as everyone knows us and our bowel habits. Apparently I am winning because I haven’t been sick yet, knock on wood. I’m not sure if that means my mom’s cooking is safer, my stomach is tougher, or if my body is just saving up for a really knock me off of my feet sick in a few weeks. No use worrying I guess… even though there have been three dead birds around my house this week… just kidding, my host mom says the neighbor kids are shooting them with sling shots.

So about what exactly I am going to be doing here:

I will supposedly be assigned two schools to work with in the hopes that I can help the teachers develop a plan for an environmental education program. Exactly how I go about doing this, whether it is me giving talks to kids, running workshops for teachers, or just helping the principle find out how to go about getting multiple bins for trash and recyclables will depend on my site. As of right now, I think I will be taking over a site from Adam, a PC MI from the GeoHazards program at MTU who is COSing in April, so eventually I am going to get to talk to him and find out the info on the schools that he has been working with to see what I am going to be able to continue and where I am going to have to figure some new things out.

In addition to this, I will be working with CONRED and INSIVUMEH (the Guatemalan equivalents of FIMA and the USGS) to help monitor Santiaguito Volcano. Again, what this exactly entails will depend on what is going on there now and where people want things to go, but apparently the Tech group that was just down here put in some new equipment. In addition, there are supposed to be plans for a workshop sometime at the end of next year that we might have a chance to help get some things rolling on, but again, that’s all in the future.

In the meantime, I am enjoying my training community and my training group, and I am especially enjoying the chocolate covered bananas which are sold in the next town over. We pass by the place almost any time we want to go into more civilized areas, so I have been eating quite a few, and I am in fact on a first name basis with the girl who works the counter.
Thanks so much to those of you leaving comments or writing emails, I love hearing from people. I may be a little slow getting back to people just because I am only really on the internet once a week, but I promise that I will respond soon! Peace.