15 December, 2008
13 December, 2008
"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
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.
Jared List is currently a Masters Student studying Spanish Literature at the Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio. We went to Augustana College together.