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.