20 March, 2009

Week 62

That’s right; I’ve been living in Guatemala for 62 weeks, out of a planned total of 115. For 51 of those weeks, I have been a volunteer in active service, attempting day in and day out to further the three goals of the Peace Corps:

1) Helping the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.
2) Helping promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.
3) Helping promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.

In the day to day activities that go on here, it is getting easier and easier for me to fulfill the first two goals. After roughly a year of service, I feel like I am fulfilling my duties at my two host agencies to the best of my ability, and that I am actually meeting a need for trained men and women. And while I am not sure if I am helping the people in my village understand Americans as a whole, my friends and neighbors are understanding at least this American better than they did 12 months ago. The goal that I have been neglecting, at least over the last 4 months is obviously the third. I’ll try to catch anyone who still checks this on what has been happening down here, including Christmas and New Year’s celebrations, a lot of volcano field work, reinvigoration of projects at school in the second year, and visits from a few friends.

Happy Holidays

I spent most of December working at the observatory. It was nice to only have to focus on one set of problems while school was on break. After many meetings and discussions with observatory personnel and our bosses in the capital, I think we decided that my chief contribution to the day to day activities of the observatory will ideally be to find a way to get internet access from this remote location during the next year. All future advances in the technical capacity of the observatory really seem to depend on this, so I will be putting a lot of effort into figuring out how this will work (A LOT of learning about IT stuff) in the coming year. We eventually want to have a webcam and be able to send and receive data to be processed at the observatory. If you know of anyone with experience in this sort of thing that would be able to answer questions, I’d be interested in emailing them! I also spent a lot of time hiking with one of my counterparts, taking advantage of the wonderful weather of December to get to know some of the up close and personal aspects of Santiaguito.

Christmas was very different this year. This was my first Christmas that I have ever spent away from my family, which was difficult. Christmas Eve I hung around town, playing with kids and wearing a Santa hat. I bought a lot of fire crackers as is apparently the custom, and we all set them off. At first I was a bit apprehensive about playing with explosives and children at the same time, given my American senses of risk and danger, but when I saw one of the kids who will be 5 NEXT month toddle up to one of the neighborhood store windows, hold up his 10 centavo coin (about a penny) and ask to buy a small hand held device that shoots sparks out of the end, and then also ask for matches to light it with, I thought that maybe I was being paranoid. I realized that I was not paranoid when he proceeded to light the thing five inches from his two year old brother’s face. Thankfully, I didn’t see any children get burned, but with these kinds of things happening all over the country that day, I don’t like the odds…

I went up to spend the evening with a fellow Peace Corps Volunteer (Ashleigh Shiffler) who had her family visiting her at her site for the holidays. We went to mass, which was punctuated by large mortar shells being lit off from the park outside while we sang carols in Spanish and watched the neighborhood posadas come in during the service. It was nice to have an American family to spend the holiday with, as it made the whole thing feel a lot more like home. We all went to one of the family’s that Ashleigh is close to in her town and ate the traditional Guatemalan Christmas tamales which I had been hearing so much about all year (think a mush of cornmeal with raisins, some special spices, and a small chink of meat in the middle, prepared in banana leaves). Then we went across the street and bought the equivalent of about $30 worth of fireworks and at the stroke of midnight joined literally the entire town in simultaneously putting on one of the best shows that I had ever seen. After experiencing the pure insanity of a town of about 20,000 people all setting off fireworks at the same time, I see now why the United States of America has legislation in most states to prevent these sorts of activities. It helped that most of the houses here were made of concrete and therefore not as susceptible as our wooden dwellings back home to catching on fire, but with the amounts of exploding charges and the subsequent fall of burning metal shards, I am surprised that there are not more injuries associated with the holiday here. Everyone assured me that New Years Eve would be the same thing all over again.

Field Work

I had two days after Christmas to prepare for the arrival of a group of scientists who I would be working with for nearly the entire month of January. The group had members from Michigan Tech, New Mexico Tech, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. We spent about two weeks in the field around Santiaguito collecting seismic data, thermal images, and high definition high speed images of the crater floor. I was also left in charge of maintaining a seismic station for the next four months down near the observatory, as well as four time-lapse cameras that are taking pictures once every five minutes during daylight hours from up on Santa Maria (the mountain overlooking the volcano). We spent New Years camping on Santa Maria, which gave us an amazing view of the fireworks: the whole Guatemalan countryside lit up with fireworks at midnight. It looked much more festive and a lot less dangerous from that safe distance and about 4,500 feet above. Then we went and spent a week at Pacaya volcano measuring the heat being emitted from the lava flows while another team was working on installing a GPS monitoring network to track changes in the shape of the volcano. Finally we went up to Fuego, where actually a rotating team had been watching a seismic network and monitoring the gas emissions with a sulfur dioxide imaging camera. I learned a lot, made a lot of contacts, and had a great time.

Back to Routine

February meant the beginning of the new school year. Like most Guatemalan public schools, we had and are still having a horrible time getting the operating funds deposited that the government promised for the school. As a result, supplies had to be purchased from local businesses on credit, arrangements have had to be made for paying electricity and water bills late, and teachers have had to be working without pay. The worst part is that there is a seemingly never ending series of meetings that the director and occasionally teachers are called into (meaning that the students are not in school either) that attempts to explain the problems, all with the same reason; the money isn’t here yet, keep waiting.

This predicament has really hurt my ability to work as well. This year I will not be teaching in the classrooms, but more coordinating efforts between teachers to implement environmental lesson plans into their own teaching, as well as serving as a resource to them for ideas or occasionally team teaching lessons. I am mainly focusing on helping them meet the requirements to be certified as an Environmentally Friendly School by the end of the year, as well as coordinating efforts for the construction of our bottle project.

I talked a little bit about the bottle project last year, where we are having students collect plastic soda pop bottles and fill them with inorganic garbage. This serves several educational purposes, including separating trash and raising consciousness about how much trash is produced by the community, but the hope is that these bottles will serve a purpose in their own right by making up a large part of the building materials for a structure. This lowers the cost of construction and (hopefully) enables communities to build things that they need. We are still currently deliberating on exactly what structure we are going to build with our bottles, but the initial goal is to collect 4000 bottles and then make up the difference for the number of bottles we need for whatever the project is after we reach this goal.

I have also been doing a little school work of my own. Through the magic of the internet, I am able to sit in via video conferencing on a Volcano Seismology class that is being offered back in Michigan. I can see the whole lecture, ask questions, and even get homework assignments. The best part is that I am able to apply what I learn immediately to interpret the data that I am collecting! In my second year I will be submitting monthly reports on the volcano’s activity, happenings at the observatory, and my research progress to my superiors at INSIVUMEH (the Guatemalan equivalent of the United States Geological Survey) and Peace Corps. This means that I actually know enough now to be reporting my own interpretations, which is pretty exciting, and I’ve produced two now for January and February.

So that’s basically what is happening around here. I have also been very slow with posting pictures, but I will have some new ones up soon! It’s strange, but I have lived longer in this house here in Guatemala longer than I have lived in any one dwelling since I left my parent’s house for college. With that amount of relative permanency, it is easy to forget that I’m living in a “foreign” country sometimes. At the same time, I can’t believe that I’ve been here a year already! One more left…

I miss you all. Take care, and if you get a chance, drop me a line and let me know how you’re doing as well. Peace.