Saturday, December 13, 2008

new digs

Where the magic happens.

The Peace Corps shelves.

Possibly the most hilarious thing in my room. The nursing students who lived here before me left this up on the wall--and have asked me not to take it down until they can come and retrieve it. Just in case you don't understand it, it's a poster that explains the various methods of family planning. Attached to it are: an intrauterine device, a packet of birth control pills, a vial of Depo-Provera, a condom and a "collar" that is supposed to help you count your fertile days, but which I think doesn't really do anything to prevent pregnancy. "Eso no es muy confiable," I always say. It's great waking up every morning to a diagram of a sterilized man.

The stove that was so much trouble to get.

at last...

Some fabulous freedom toast cooked on my gas stove.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

de mal humor

Monday I returned home from a trip to Huehue to find my door ajar. Now, I was certain I had locked it on the way out. I went to ask my neighbor, "Who went in my room?"

(It should probably be stated here that at this moment there were many people outside my front porch. Most of them were Señoras who were efficiently killing and starting to cook over ten turkeys. The rest were the mayor and the auxiliary mayors from the surrounding communities. No one would give me a straight answer about what they were doing with the turkeys.)

"Well, we needed to get into the room adjacent to yours, and the key to the outside door wasn't working. So we went in your room."

"Um...well...if you do that again, could you close the door afterward?"

"Oh, but we were all out here. Nothing bad would have happened."

Given the fact that we were in front of all of the local government, I contained myself, and went into my room, shutting the door behind me. I uttered an oath. Then there was a knock on my door.

"Yes?" It was the girl who had rented my room before I moved in.

"Can I come in?"

I let her in. She seemed to just want to shoot the breeze for a few minutes, and informed me that she is probably moving into the adjacent room (the one that my neighbor got into) next month. I was still trying to keep my cool.

On her way out I asked, "Ana, why are they killing all those turkeys?"

"Yes." She said. And she left.

As she shut the door, I uttered another oath and made some disparaging remarks about...well, I'm sure you get the picture.

Then I saw it--the open bottle of wine from the difficult night before, sitting on the table in the middle of the room. If they didn't think I'm a hard drinking, loose American woman before, they surely will now. I swore again.

Security has warned me against going into too much detail about my valuables and possessions on this website, but there are plenty of things in my room, including my new stove and tables, that I would hate to lose. My room ought to be my room--not an entrance into another area of the building. I know this culture is a communal society that doest put a high premium on privacy. I'm trying to make concessions. But I need people to respect the lock on my door. I'm still pretty incensed about it, but I'm not sure what to do yet. Pissing off the wrong person, especially on the mayor's staff, could mean death to projects I want to do later. On the other hand, as Marcelino warned me, "es una inseguridad."

And the fact that no one would tell me what they were doing with the turkeys was just annoying. I mean, if a bunch of people showed up and started hacking up poultry in front of your door, wouldn't you be a little curious as to what was going on?

The truth is, I've been in a bad mood ever since the incident. I felt like there was a big deficit in respect for me personally, as well as my privacy. And my intelligence. Ideas on how to delicately handle the situation?

Monday, December 8, 2008

smells like volunteer spirit

I have never in my life gone so long without bathing.

Tomorrow it will be over a week with little more than a sponge bath every few days to attend to my personal hygiene.

I'd like to describe my bathing situation. For the past four months, to wash myself I have had to wake up extra early, heat up water on the stove, and then carry it into an outdoor shower stall. There one uses a small bowl to throw water over oneself, a little at a time. Lather, rinse, repeat. It's not the most comfortable way to bathe and I don't really think it's as effective as a shower, but it more or less gets the job done.

Bathing this way takes a lot of energy and motivation. Sometimes it's hard to summon the drive to heat up the water, haul it where you need to go, and be constantly dousing yourself instead of letting manmade technology do the work.

But never has it taken more energy than the past week. You see, I recently purchased a gas stove for my new residence. One has to buy the stovetop and the propane tank separately and then attach them with a hose.

When I finally got all the needed parts, I realized that the salespeople had forgotten to include burners for the gas stove. This meant yet another trip to the "state capital." While there, I bought vegetables and spaghetti in anticipation of a working stove an access to cooking.

When I got home, I realized that I couldn't connect the gas tank to the stove. The valve on the hose wouldn't fit. This means no spaghetti, no stir-fry and worst of all, another day of no hot water to bathe in. It also means that it is impossible to boil water (which is necessary before drinking anything that comes out of the tap).

Which brings me to why I have finally opened that bottle of wine I was saving for an especially hard day.

Today I sat through a lunch where I didn't understand a word that was said, was the butt of many jokes re: my marrying any of the other men at the lunch, and choked down a soda (I hate carbonated drinks).

My neighbor forced me to ask for leftovers, even though nobody else at the party did.

And I smell like a person who hasn't showered in a week.

Readers, raise your glasses with me in a toast to Guatemala--may she live in peace, justice and prosperity forever.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

on the board

Yesterday I went to a neighboring larger town, Ixtahuacán, to buy three long wooden boards to make shelves. The "Peace Corps shelves" are made by stacking wooden boards over cinderblocks. Having already procured enough cinderblocks for three levels, I was in need of the wood, which is unfortunately not sold in my village or anywhere immediately accessible.

Going out of town to other little towns always makes me a little nervous. In the larger cities there is some tolerance for outsiders--they have at least seen or been exposed to gringos before. But when you are just going to a neighboring town you stick out like a sore thumb without the saving grace of living in the village on a benevolent mission from the US government. I asked around and found a carpenter and got a good price on the wood. A young man carried the three boards outside of his shop and leaned them against the wall.

The next challenge was to carry the three boards to the center of town where pickup trucks left all day. I realized there was no way I could carry the three boards all by myself. I pondered the situation for a minute and was about to start awkwardly lugging them the 100 yards to the town center one at a time when a woman approached me. It was she who had earlier pointed me in the direction of the carpintero.

"Do you need a hand with that?" she asked.

"Sure," I said. together, we were able to carry all three boards without too much trouble.

About half way there, she asked to take a rest for a minute. She went into a tienda for about 15 minutes. I was half expecting her to be rounding up an ambush. But after a long while she came out and helped me carry the boards the rest of the way into town.

I turned around and was about to offer her some quetzales for her trouble, but she was gone.

I have since spent a lot of time thinking about this interaction. With all due respect to those who have been so kind and generous to me, unsolicited acts of kindness like that are rare (although less so all the time). Some people have a karmic attitude about helping Americans. If they have children there, they believe that helping an American here might bring good karma to their kids in el Norte, and maybe an American family will help them in their hour of need. Maybe she was related to the carpenter, and wanted him to have another loyal customer. Or possibly, my guardian angel is a middle-aged indigenous woman from San Ildefonso Ixtahuacán. I don't know.

Little lady from Ixtahuacán, thank you, where ever you area, whatever your motivation.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

work that

So, today I had a long talk with one of the most eloquent and educated people in my health center, Marcelino. We talked about what the community needs. A few months ago, I was convinced the best thing I could do would be to build improved wood-burning stoves in all the community schools. Then I was advised that the best thing I could do with my time would be to put cement floors in all of the homes in an aldea. Today Marcelino was saying the really hot deal would be microloans and job training to empower people and increase employment. Beekeeping as a source of income was also suggested. And the thing that the people themselves actually keep saying, over and over again at community meetings, is that they want a trash system. But no one in Peace Corps seems to have a great idea about how to implement such a system.

It's so frustrating...My village has so many needs, I don't even know where to start, let alone looking for funding or gathering community support.

Technically, my program does not advocate starting projects until the second year of service. But I am antsy. My village has waited a long time for development, and I don't want them to have to wait another year. Also, I am insecure about my role here. Building something or organizing a large project would earn me respect and credibility and endear me to them.

Also, I told a joke today that went over like a cement balloon. I was in a meeting with all of the staff of the Puesto de Salud where I work. They had decided to buy a tank of gas for everyone to use in cooking on the stove, and decided that everyone should chip in for the gas. Then someone suggested buying a big tambo of Agua Salvavidas ("lifesaver water"-- a popular brand of purified water) for everyone to drink from. With community money, of course. Someone else then noted that only three of the health center staff are paying for the cable that everyone enjoys. Really, we should all throw down some quetzales since we all like watching the soccer games and telenovelas.

I stood up to make an announcement. "Well, personally, I think we all should pitch in some money for a nice blender. That way, we could all have smoothies every day." Dead silence. Some generous souls even nodded as though it was a reasonable idea. "I'm KIDDING." I said. "I"m just kidding." Nervous laughter all around. "No, but seriously, December 16 there will be a workshop about educating the public on HIV/AIDS..."

Sunday, November 23, 2008

a stone for a pillow

For the past several days I have been driving both myself and everyone I love crazy with the following conundrum, which I will now proceed to share with you.

Moving is traumatic. Most of us weren't meant to be gypsies. We like to, at the end of a long day, come home to a warm bed, perhaps a cup of a favorite beverage, and some source of entertainment.

For the first four months here, I lived with a delightful family in cell-like room with a lot of hygiene problems. I was glad to leave, but saying goodbye to my family was a tearful and emotional experience. I still miss walking with Ana by the river and letting little Franco into my room to color.

So I moved into the second floor of a really nice building, with an indoor, first-world style bathroom, a proper kitchen, a little balcony, and an area to entertain. After a lonely first night, I settled in and looked forward to enjoying the next two years there.

Until I went to see the mayor with the president of the women's group. After we left the office, she tarried a few minutes talking to him, and then hustled out, grabbed me by the arm and spoke to me in a hushed tone: "Listen, the mayor wants you to move into the apartment next to me. It would be free. You could keep me company. You could move in this afternoon!"

I panicked. The room next to hers is a medium-sized with bright pink walls. For me, especially after an entire floor to myself, it would be smallish. Also, I would have to buy a bed, a table and a stove (at least), whereas in the bigger place I was just borrowing those things.

In the end, I could not find a way to politely refuse the mayor's generous offer, though I would really prefer to stay here. So I will wind up spending a big pile of money on furniture other needs in a place I don't actually like as much. Hey, at least it's free. And maybe it will endear me to the mayor.

When I get depressed about it, and want to start wallowing, I force myself to think of two F-words first:

1. FREE. This will save me about 13% of my income. I have decided to indulge in more travel, or maybe more peanut-butter every month with this savings.

2. FRIEND. I will have a next door neighbor who always loves to chat. This would be different from the current family I live with, who is standoffish. Furthermore, she is an important person in the community, especially with the women and adolescents, who are two groups I really want to work with.

After reflecting on these two F-words, I allow myself to think of any other F-words that come to mind. But forcing myself to consider the positive aspects always makes the glass look a bit fuller.

Monday, November 17, 2008

What's new

So much has happened in the past month!

Here are a few of the highlights:

El Día de Todos Santos, Todos Santos Cuchumatan: This was possibly the craziest thing I've seen in Guatemala, and I've seen some doozies. Way up in the mountains of Huehuetenango, down a bumpy dirt road, is a little village in a deep valley where the men still wear indigenous clothing and Mam is the prominent language. On All Saints' Day, the men get totally trashed and engage in wild horse races that last about eight hours. The celebration remembers the day when, after years of Spanish repression that banned indigenous peoples from riding horses, an Indian hopped on a horse and rode away. The drinking is just for fun. Toward the end of the day, the men grab a live chicken and whip their horses with the chicken as they ride, resulting in the death of the chicken. I am serious. While I didn't appreciate the animal cruelty or the fact that several men almost died when they drunkenly fell off their horses, I am glad I went and saw such an unusual tradition.

Reconnect: This is when all Peace Corps Volunteers from a training class reunite at the training center after their first three months of service. It's a week in Antigua, but it's not nearly as much fun as it sounds. Far from being a mini-vacation, Peace Corps truly does put you to work taking more Spanish classes and meeting with your project directors. It was great to see everyone again, eat some good food and get out of the Gaspar, but there was also the typical drama and gossip that comes with Antigua and 30 volunteers in one place.

President-elect Barack Obama: I'm not really allowed to get too political on here, but words really can't describe what it was like to watch Barack Obama win the election from abroad, gathered with a bunch of Peace Corps volunteers. When CNN projected him as the winner, people were crying, hugging and screaming. I even shed a tear during his victory speech. Watching election returns made me feel so close to home and so far away at the same time.

Changes: Once again, I probably shouldn't say too much, but some of my dear friends changed sites (they will now be even farther from me, but way closer to the beach!). Also, we lost a volunteer to an early termination. It was a sad surprise for everyone.

A sweet new pad: Due to some persistent problems in my site, my boss came to visit to help me address one of my most pressing issues--my living space. As I have said before, I live in a closet that is also inhabited by mice, cockroaches and various other vermin. The rain leaks in from the roof. There is a mildew problem. Well friends, tomorrow, I am coming out of the closet! That's right. I am moving to a totally sweet new apartment, where I will have a whole floor to myself, indoor plumbing, and a kitchen. It's beautiful, clean, NOT infested with creepy-crawlies, and has a nice little balcony that overlooks "mainstreet." I feel terrible about leaving this family that has shown me so much love, but I honestly cannot wait. It's also great for entertaining, so come on over!

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

it's alive

One thing about Guatemala--there's just so much life here. Let's face it: In the United States, we live in a pretty sterile environment. There is not much microscopic life swimming in the drinking water that comes out of your kitchen sink. Heck, you can even drink out of the garden hose! Not so here. There could be giardia, amoebas or other parasites merrily anticipating a romp around your stomach lining in any drop of unboiled water.
The same is true for people, plants and animals. Due to a mix of machismo, religious tradition and societal values, families here are big--far bigger than the average family in the U.S. It seems no matter where you are, whether its at a city council meeting, in a restaurant, visiting someone's home and especially in the Health Center, there are always a ton of little kids around.
Stateside children are relegated to specific parts of life. They have their own table for meals, and you don't take them somewhere that they could make a disturbance. Even our lives are divided into childhood, adulthood, parenthood and retirement. And unless you actively seek to make children a part of your life, they won't be.
Sometimes it's sad, like when you see a dog that is so skinny it can't nurse its puppies, or you see a kitten with one foot in the grave. Sometimes it's annoying, like when something you left under your bed for a week is already moldy. Or the fact that you have to be so proactive at killing insects and arachnids in your living space.
But I like that it's such a family-friendly society. And, like in all areas of my life, I'm learning to make accommodations for things and people different than what I am used to.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

squeaks in the night

I woke up this morning at 3:30 a.m. to the sound of a rustling above my head. After a few sleepy moments, I realized that the unsettling noises were emanating from the big plastic bag where I keep all my food. I had hung the bag from the ceiling to discourage creepy-crawlies from getting in there. As you may have guessed by now, this clever strategy did not work.
I turned on the light, and the noises got louder. I now had no choice to admit to myself that there was something alive inside the bag with all of my comestibles.

Then, all of a sudden, a furry gray blur bolted from the bag, ran up the wall and disappeared into the tin roof. I squealed. I sat on my bed for a few moments, contemplating what had just happened with all the reflective powers I could muster at that hour. My conclusion, if it isn't yet clear, was that a fat mouse had raided my supply of whole wheat bread, peanut-butter and the nutella my sisters sent me for my birthday.

"Ugh. What am I doing here?" I said to no one in particular. "What planet am I on?"

The good news: he only got part of a chocolate bar. And I think I probably scared him more than he scared me.

When I told my friend Ana about the incident, she said, "Well, why didn't you kill it?"
"With what?!" I asked.
"With a shoe."
As much as I hate the little rodent, I cannot imagine killing any kind of a mammal with my bare hands. I am loathe to even smoosh a cockroach. And then what would you do with the carcass? Gross.

Luckily, our cat here is a great mouser.

I have got to get out of this room.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Me gusta tu piel...

I’d like to write a post about another touchy subject: men.

Men were one of the things I got serious warnings about before arriving and during my training. I heard about the aggressive Guatemalan males and their ridiculousness. While I’ve never felt in danger, I’ve definitely felt uncomfortable. Most of the time people leave me alone in my pueblo, but when I go to the city I get constant catcalls. The worst part about it is the noise people use to get someone’s attention here. “Ch ch ch ch…” this means, “Hey! Over here!”
I know it is acceptable in this culture, but it drives me crazy. It just sounds so rude! “Ch ch ch ch” is usually followed by heavily accented calls of “Hey baby!” “How are you, my love?” or my favorite, “Miss Universe.” It doesn’t even seem to matter if I am accompanied by a guy or not. I have to wonder, has this ever worked? Has any woman ever responded to these advances by saying, “Well, hey, what are you doing later?” I think not.
Then there was the one time things got physical. I was walking down the street in Xela with one of my girlfriends when a man driving past on a motorcycle reached over and grabbed my ass! He was gone before I even really knew what was going on. But really! Not only is it rude, degrading, and completely counterproductive to any prospects he may have, but that takes a lot of coordination!
If there’s one good thing about this treatment of women, (and I thought long and hard about whether or not there are any advantages at all), it’s that men here tend not to be flakes. If they like you, they let you know, and they are persistent. There is little of the second-guessing, body language reading that goes on in dating stateside. Of course, this directness does not outweigh the drawbacks to the machismo behavior.
I think if I were giving advice to a new PCV arriving in Guatemala, it would be to be confident and cool. After all, if you’re in a public place, you have all the control in the situation. And don’t forget that even though you are trying to integrate into the community, there are some parts of the culture you don’t have to buy into, and this is one of them.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

bad religion

I’d like to try to write a post about religion. This is a very delicate subject in any country, so I will try to use tact and discretion.

I was recently sitting next to a woman during a vaccination campaign. There were many children around us, most of whom would take one look at me and scurry off, giggling. Then they would peek out at me from behind whatever large object was around.
“I think I scare the kids,” I remarked to the lady. “It’s because I’m too tall.”
“Well,” she said, “They shouldn’t be scared. God made the tall ones, and the short ones, and the skinny ones, and the fat ones, the white ones, and the brown ones. God made them all. There’s no reason to be afraid.”
Wow, I thought. What a reasonable and kind thing to say.
The problem is, most statements that I hear motivated by religion are neither reasonable nor kind.

When I hear someone attribute the death of an innocent by a drunk driver to “God’s will,” I get downright angry, though I can’t express it.

My reaction was about the same when someone explained to me that the reason her cousin was born with fluid on the brain, causing permanent and severe brain damage in the baby, was because the child’s mother questioned the Virgin birth during pregnancy.
“God doesn’t punish us…but he does put examples in our lives,” she told me.

Like my own stomping grounds in the deep South, Guatemala is a Christ-haunted landscape. Jesus turns up everywhere: T-shirts, pick-up truck decals, in all sorts of kitsch people use to decorate their homes. Traveling evangelists board the public transportation to spread the gospel via chicken bus. And when someone asks your religion, the question is “Are you Catholic or evangelical?” rather than something more inclusive.

However, as I mentioned earlier, for all Jesus’ ubiquity, his teachings often seem conspicuously absent. Catholics and Evangelicals constantly approach me to hate on the other denomination, using anything at all to assert their superiority over the offending faith.
“You know why the Evangelicals make me laugh?” someone once said smugly, “They use the exact same praise song as the Catholics!” To this young lady, the use of the same worship music was a clear indication of the Evangelicals tacit lowliness.

I’ve never been one to hate on religion in general, and this post isn’t meant to do that either. I go to church with my family every Sunday, and that’s been one of the few things in my life that has not changed since moving to Guatemala. I appreciate the warmth behind each kindly utterance of “Dios te bendiga.” And I know that the most read book here in Guatemala is definitely La Biblia. Any time people are reading, it can’t be a bad thing.

There’s so much more I could say, but in the end I find myself asking the same questions about religion that I asked at home. Why is it such a comfort to people? Is it a force for good or ill in society? Will I ever really understand it?

Friday, October 3, 2008

fun in the oven

Today was a great day. I made a tin oven! Yesterday I bought a big sheet of tin and today a third year volunteer came to visit my site. We cut out the shape of a box and folded it up into an oven! It sits on top of a wood burning stove and a small grill allows the hot air to circulate around the food. I will try to post a picture of it tomorrow.

I wanted to build the oven for a few reasons. So that I myself could make cookies, breads and casseroles, but also because one day I was sitting around talking to a young lady, (who is about my age with a 3-yr-old son), when she said wistfully, "I want to learn how to make bread!" It was so sad to me, because I knew she would probably never be able to.
Sometimes this country reminds me a lot of a line from (don't laugh) the live-action version of 101 Dalmations. The female lead is a fashion designer in Cruella DeVille's firm. When she tells Cruella that she is going to get married, Cruella says:
"Marriage?! More good women have been lost to marriage than war, famine and disease!"
The women here are capable and smart, but they get stuck in these crappy marriages and don't do much with their lives. I know, I know, raising nine children is a worthwhile thing to do with your life. I just wish they had more options. The girl who wants to make bread, for example, is a really smart lady with a wonderful personality. She could definitely run a small business. She would make an excellent teacher. And she's so good with people, if she were even just a waitress, she would make great tips. Instead she wastes away with her son, while living off of her husband's remittances. She hardly ever even leaves the house.

So anyway, I hope the oven might be a new diversion for her. Another thing you can do with this technology is teach women's groups how to make them. They are so easy and cheap to put together, a women's group could sell them on market day for a profit. Then they can use that income to do their own projects or have a little more power in the community.

At this point, though, all this is merely speculative. We'll see if it works tomorrow!

Thursday, October 2, 2008

coming unhinged

When I arrived in Guatemala, they all told me to get used to having less privacy. Everyone will be all up in your business, they said. You'll have less personal space, they said.
This advice was fully realized yesterday as I sat on my family's front stoop reading. A man walked out of our house carrying the front door to my room. I silently did a double take. Is that really my door? I recognized the pink paint splatter and the ribbon tied to the window. Yup, definitely mine.
"Doña Ana?" I asked, "Where is that man going with my door?"
As it turned out, he was just going to fix the lock. It was back on its hinges in a couple of hours, but it was such a surreal experience.
For those of you who don't know, I live in a closet. There's enough space for a bed, but practically nothing else. Storage, cooking and cleaning are a daily challenge.
However, I've always wanted to be the kind of person who could live happily in a tiny Japanese apartment. Right now I'm not, but I'm way closer than when I moved in two months ago.
I think it's a good transformation. I really think twice about buying anything, even a new shirt, because it will take up more space.
This is all part of my transformation into a new-and-improved Emily: frugal, patient, capable.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

working for peanuts

A few weeks ago I became very depressed after receiving a text message from my good friend Anne. "My students brought me 50 ears of corn!" It said. "I love the kindness and smiles of this culture."
It was a bad day anyway, but upon recieving this message I couldn't help but think "Jeez. No one in my town has given me anything more than a headache since I've been here!"*
So, I was walking home from the Puesto yesterday when I was stopped on the street by a young girl selling peanuts. "Seño.," she said. "Here is a bag of peanuts for you."
"How much is it?"
"De nada."
I thanked her profusely, and continued down the street with a new swagger. Someone gave me something! Finally! Somebody in this godforsaken place likes me! It might not be 50 ears of corn, but a bag of boiled peanuts seemed good enough for me. These are the moments you have to cherish, I told myself.
I walked into my house, smiling. Nothing could ruin my mood right now, I thought. I had such high spirits, I extended the bag to one of the little kids hanging around our house. This gesture, I thought, would be universal for "Want a peanut?" Instead, he took the whole bag from me and meekly said, "Thank you.
No!!! I thought. My one tiny victory snatched from my hands!
Thankfully, the whole thing just made me laugh. And I'm glad her small gesture of magnanimity turned out to be a gift that kept on giving. But I was really looking forward to those peanuts.

*This is not entirely true. My host family has been very generous with me. It was just the first thing that came to mind.

Monday, September 22, 2008

my new friends

Let me start at the beginning.

My most recent adventure began at 4:00 a.m. Thursday. I was awakened to the sound of deafening explosions outside my home. Once again, back in the states this would be a grave call for alarm and a definite call to the police. Here, it registered little more than sleepy annoyance. Then the church bells began. Then the praise music, complete with a bone-rattling bass. This is all a part of the continuing celebration of Guatemala's Independence from Spain. At 5:00 a.m. I summoned the will to get out of bed, and by 6:00 a.m. I was on a bus headed for Huehue, from which I would take another bus to Xela. The purpose of my trip was to poop in a cup and hopefully discover the cause of my ever-more-frequent trips to the outhouse.

Just past the neighboring town of Colotenango, the bus came to an unexpected halt, and, after some deliberation, everyone on board, including myself, got off and continued toward Huehue on foot. We walked for hours, through the rain, through throngs of angry indigenous men protesting a national identification card program. I walked until I found a ride with an extremely zealous evangelical man.

"I asked God this morning, 'God, who can I share the Word with today?'" he said. "And here you are!"
And share with me he did. He told me his theories on original sin, the fall, the follies of Catholicism and Mary worship. The truth is, I didn't agree with hardly anything he said, but I swallowed my words and my pride and smiled and nodded the whole way. I sold my soul for a 20 kilometer ride to Huehuetenango. Lord, please don't let me have a real moral test, like Dietrich Bonhoeffer or Martin Luther King, Jr.

I did finally make it to Xela, a day later and much poorer than I expected to after having to buy a hotel room and several suppers when the bus protest continued for the rest of the day.

I have occasionally written here about my loneliness. Well, I have one source of comfort, at least for a little while. When I feel sad, alone in the universe, I have this mantra to soothe me: "At least my parasite friends are with me."
That's right. As I write this right now, there are a significant number of amoebas gallivanting around my stomach lining.

And any of you who have ever attended one of my dinner parties know that if nothing else, I am an excellent host. :)

Monday, September 15, 2008

feliz quince

Today was the Guatemalan Independence Day, so I had the day off from work and took part in some of the festivities. Patriotic expression always leaves me in an awkward position, here in the Land of the Eternal Spring. I never know what to do when I go to a school assembly or a government function and everyone says the pledge to their flag (which involves pledging eternal loyalty until death) or sings the national anthem (which truly seems eternal). I have decided on standing, but not saluting or saying the words during these uncomfortable moments.
Guatemaltecos celebrate with bombas, extremely loud firecrackers, beauty pageants, parades and constant marimba music.
I made the mistake once of getting up and dancing like an idiot to the marimbas once when my family asked me to. Now every five minutes they say "Dance, Emily, dance!" I have the sneaking suspicion that they are laughing at me and not with me.
But the best moment of the day was when I saw a guy wearing a t-shirt that read "PROUD TO BE AN AMERICAN: 1776." There's a phenomenon here called ropa americana, in which your thrift store rejects get sent South of the border to be sold for pennies in a market called the paca. The fact that a majority of Guatemalans can't read what they are wearing often results in hilarity. For example, the muscular construction worker sporting "There are only two types of girls in the world: Alpha Chis and those who wish they were!" across his chest.
Or consider the surly teenager in a navy hoodie with a nautical theme that said "I have scurvy."
Then there are the little old ladies who wear t-shirts with sexually provocative messages, or the sweatshirt with a pair of shackles on it that reads "Jesus is my ball and chain."
I once had to supress a loud guffaw when I realized my host father was wearing a sweatshirt from the Limited, too, a clothing store for preadolescent girls.
But there's something just priceless about a guy wearing a Fourth of July shirt on the 15th of September.
Even better than the guy wearing the shirt that said "Property of the USA."

Saturday, September 13, 2008

chicken guts

Yesterday I got up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom, and nearly tripped over a bucket filled with blood and innards. Now, back in the states, this would have been cause for great alarm. But here in Guatemala my first thought was honestly "Oh, maybe we'll be having chicken soup tomorrow. My favorite."
Before living with my current host family, I had never had a relationship with any of the animals I consumed. But my family here raises chickens, ducks and turkeys, and they even have a pig and some cows.
And I have to say, it doesn't bother me at all to eat the same chickens that run around our patio, clucking softly and shitting constantly. These chickens have a far better existence than the most expensive "free range" chicken that money can buy in the United States. They frolic all day long about our patio, or on my family's farm a few miles away. They sneak corn kernels from the gunney sack stash. And when their time comes, their death is quick and probably relatively painless. Some people here even give turkeys a shot of whiskey before killing them. When my family bought turkeys to kill for a big birthday party, they were tied up near the outdoor sink where I brush my teeth. As I watched them while brushing my teeth, I would tell them, "Eat, drink and be merry, guys. Eat, drink and be merry." And they were.
A word to those who champion the slow food, eat local, eat seasonal movement: sometimes it kind of sucks. For those of you reading this back in the states, the average distance your food travels to get to your table is about 10,000 miles. Mine usually travels a matter of feet. Sometimes a few miles, if it comes from the market in the neighboring town. And I have to say, sometimes I tire of only eating beans, tortillas and eggs, all of which come from right here and are oh-so-ecologically correct. I miss Spanish olives, California almonds, and imported olive oil. Not only that, but greater variety in one's diet is actually healthier than just eating beans, tortillas and eggs for every meal.
So, enjoy your strolls to the local farmer's market once a week, just ask yourself if you are really ready to move to a diet free of imported wine, Washington apples or Wisconsin cheese.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

hunting wabbits

An ongoing challenge and failure in my life so far has been working with a destitute family and their first and only baby. For reasons to do with respecting their privacy, I won't tell you the baby's name explicitly, but I will say that he shares it with a certain plaid-wearing hunter who spends his days searching for "wabbits" and has the surname Fudd.
So, a few weeks ago I was sitting at a desk in the health center, working on a water purification charla to do in one of the elementary schools, when the doctor walked in and asked if I could share some of my knowledge on nutrition with a young family. He took me into the examination room, where the baby was naked on the exam table. At ten months old, he weighed only nine pounds, and his body was covered in sores. He had a bad infection in his groin area, and he cried plaintively at the cold in the room. His mother was very young, and very tiny. When the doctor had finished examining him, she held her son protectively, and looked around the room with frightened, suspicious big brown eyes. She didn't speak any Spanish, so I used one of the only phrases I know to ask her son's name in Mam.
I briefly went over the food groups with her husband, who does speak Spanish. Here in the third world, rather than a pyramid we group food into only three groups--foods that give energy, like fats and carbohydrates, foods that aid in protecting the body from illnesses and enhance things like skin and vision, and foods that aid in growth and development. I encouraged the family to give the baby energy foods five times a day, and to supplement them with growth and protection foods.
They left soon after, referred to the hospital by the doctor, but I still see the baby's sad little face sometimes. It kind of hurt your heart to look at him. Up to this point, I had only seen malnutrition like that in pictures and commercials to sponsor a child.
I decided to go on a home visit to the family. My Guatemalan counterpart, fluent in Mam, agreed to go with me. I wanted to make Incaparina, a hot drink with many nutrients and protein in it, with the family.
We climbed a small mountain to get to their house, which was basically tin sheets nailed together. The Spanish-speaking father was not home. The grandmother made a fire for me in the room that served as their kitchen. The stove was just a fire in one corner, with no chimney or way for smoke to escape. As I struggled with the Incaparina, I knew I needed to get the mother in the room to see how the stuff was made, but I was so nervous and preoccupied with making it correctly, I just didn't. Also, the language barrier didn't help. Just as I was thinking it was probably about time to take the hot drink off of the stove, it boiled over, extinguishing the fire! I then decided to add more sugar to the drink, just to give a boost of calories to the baby. As I tried to widen the opening of the sugar bag I had brought, it ripped, spilling all over their dirt floor. I cannot remember the last time I was so embarrassed. We fed the baby together, and I left the Incaparina mix, but as I left, I couldn't help but feel that what I wanted so much to be a cooperative learning experience turned out to be paternalistic and a hand-out.
Then Sunday, I tried to go back to their house by myself, at the hospital's request. I took a "shortcut" that my host family recommended, and found myself lost in a cornfield in the rain, about an hour before dark. The story of my journey back into town involves more corn and coffee fields, falling down numerous times, my host mother freaking out and calling the mayor of the nearest community to ask them "not to hurt the gringa."
It does not involve a home visit to the family. I never did find their house again.
I'm still hoping to try to go back to their house. I would love to work with these young parents for the whole two years that I am here. I just hope our next interaction is not characterized by raging incompetence on my part. But mostly I hope that whatever I do or do not do, Baby E lives, and grows up to be a strong and healthy Guatemalan boy.

**A Footnote to this post:
This baby died Monday. I'm pretty sad about it. Also, two other kids in my town died of acute diarrhea this past week. So, it's been sad times in San Gaspar Ixchil.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

well, it´s beautiful, anyway

Hello, friends. It has been so long. I’ve been in my site for just over a month now, and every day has its ups and downs.
The village itself is truly beautiful. Getting there involves an ear-popping car ride through the mountains of Huehuetenango. My pueblo is in a deep valley surrounded by tall green mountains with a big river running through the middle of it. The mountains look like a patchwork quilt made of every shade of green, because they have been divided up into small terranos of land where the people farm coffee, bananas, apples, beans and especially maize.
The truth is, often I feel like the people in my town are at best mildly amused by my presence and at worst really irritated by it. But probably even the experiences that are hardest are very character-building. For example, up to this point in my life I haven’t received much unwanted attention due to my race. That’s totally different now. Everywhere I go I make a spectacle of myself, just by walking around and talking the way I do, and being myself. And I have to tell you, if “¡Gringa, gringa, gringa!” has never been screamed at you by 200 school children, you haven’t lived.
The hardest thing right now is definitely the unabated loneliness. My town is really reserved, and I don’t really have any friends here. I think that will eventually change, but realistically, it will probably take several months. I’m far away from all the friends I made in my training class, and I miss my family incredibly. Furthermore, the fact that Spanish is a second language to all the residents here certainly puts a barrier between me and potential kindred spirits.
I think this kind of experience really brings out whatever personal neuroses you happen to have, and I won’t tell you all of mine, but I have always had a problem with comfort eating, and I pull at my eyebrows when I get nervous. And while right now, during what everyone agrees is the hardest part of training, these neuroses are exaggerated, I’m hoping that also, this will prove to be the best opportunity to conquer them.
Back in my college debate society, I once presented the resolution “Be it resolved: Addiction is the opposite of personal freedom.” The best counter argument that I heard was something to the effect of, “No, addiction offers us the best opportunity to prove that we do indeed have personal freedom.” He argued that addiction gives us the occasion to prove that we have agency, to make a choice and a commitment about something that actually matters.
So I’m hoping that pushing on through my constant doubt, and enduring innumerable uncomfortable social interactions will effect a positive change in me, and in my pueblo, too.

Monday, July 7, 2008

what are the people like, there?

Before I came to Guatemala, and even when I first arrived in the Peace Corps, people told me a lot of things about the Guatemalan people. “They are a murderous group,” one neighbor claimed. “They are a small people, and very, very quiet,” said another. “Culturally, they often don’t marry. They just opt for common law marriages.”
“It’s a very machismo kind of society. Women tend to be subservient.”
“Everyone is armed.”
“It’s a society of indirect communication. No one will ever explicitly tell you ‘no.’”
And on and on.
One of the funnest things about being here has been seeing how these stereotypes play out—but more often than that, how they don’t.
All of these statements lump citizens of The Land of the Eternal Spring together as one. And while most cultures have something in common, all of the Guatemalans I know have very distinctive personalities.
For example, we’re all told that the men here have the last word. In a marriage, they run the show, while women just stay at home, cooking, cleaning and popping out babies. But in the families I know, the women are totally in charge. They control the finances, they work, and they make practically all of the important decisions regarding the family.
Then there’s the little old lady in the Puesto de Salud who spontaneously gave us a charla on family planning, explaining to us to use condoms and oral contraceptives. In a society that is supposedly too Catholic to believe in anything other than the rhythm method, this should not have occurred.
Even in my house, where I live with two older sisters who grew up together and are best friends, their personalities are completely different.
One is direct, proud, a career nurse who wisely invests every extra cent she earns. The other is loving and nurturing, but firm, a wife and mother with strong opinions about her family, community and world. While traditional in some ways, she taught her four sons to always show women respect with their words and deeds.
Having all of my preformed assumptions blown out of the water one by one has been a humbling experience. It reminds me how silly it is to ask the question, “What are the people like, there?”

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Thursday, my four-person group gave a charla on HIV/AIDS to a local high school. I was intimidated. "Now really," our technical trainers said, "you wouldn't really give this charla until you had been living in your community for at least six months, probably a year. It's imperative to built the trust and confidence of the people first, before you go barging in talking directly about genitalia and specific sex acts."
So why are we giving it after only a few weeks, my coworkers and I wondered, but we've long since learned that arguing with the technical trainers is about as fruitlful as trying to argue with one of our host mothers, which is to say, not at all.
We practiced all week, making colorful flip charts, practicing the technical vocabulary and rehearsing skits to show how HIV can be and is transferred to the general public, to faithful housewives and their breastfeeding children. When we arrived at the school, they rearranged their desks on the basketball court to accommodate all eighty students. Girls in plaid, pleated skirts and bright red sweaters, boys with hair full of moco de gorilla (a styling paste that literally translates to "gorilla snot") and one student in a brightly colored indigenous traje stared expectantly at us as angry rain clouds threatened above.
And it went great. Though shy at first, they warmed up as we performed goofy skits, and paid attention through the more boring, technical parts about transmission and prevention.
"Any questions?" We asked at the end. And there were. We took question after question for at least twenty minutes. They asked important questions, intelligent questions, questions that showed they had been paying attention.
When one boy asked, just in general, where condoms are available for purchase and if one brand is better than another, one of the health promoters (our counterparts), stood up from the back. She looked like somebody's grandmother, and in fact, she probably was.
"I would just like to say that all of you kids are way too young to be thinking about sex!" she said. "Right now you just need to study. You shouldn't even think about purchasing condoms!"
A small boy from the second row raised his hand. "I would like to say," he began, "that we just want the information. It doesn't necessarily mean we'll use it, or that we'll use it any time soon. But we aren't bad people, just for asking."
Perhaps I'm reading too much into it, perhaps I'm glorifying our efforts there to the point of ridiculousness. But it seemed to me that beneath the surface of this huffy point/counterpoint was a real generational exchange. I was glad the grandmother stood up. And likewise the young man.
But the most meaningful moment of the day for me happened after we had folded up the flip charts and put away our props. Three girls motioned me over, leaned in close and spoke in sotto voce.
"Is it true that when you lose your virginity, everyone can tell, just by looking at you?"
I did a doubletake.
"No, absolutely not," I said.
"We heard that a woman bleeds on her first time."
"Sometimes that's true, but not for every woman. That's a big lie."
"But isn't there an exam that can be done, to see if a person is still a virgin?"
Whoa! I thought. This deserves more than a firm, monosyllabic "No." I paused for a minute to consider the vocabulary I would need in Spanish to explain the physiology of virginity. Inadequate. I began anyway, and stumbling through it, I felt a real connection with the girls. More importantly, I felt that giving them some good, truthful information about their health and their bodies was making the world a slightly, infinitesimally better place.
Who knows if my Spanish was good enough, or if they even trust the word of a crazy North American woman against that of their mothers and grandmothers. But talking with those three girls was definitely the coolest thing I've done since I've been here, and it gave me hope and peace that I'm doing the right thing.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

partido patriota

So, the other day, I was talking to a fellow volunteer about how our parents are afraid we will come back to the US uber-liberal and totally disenchanted with American culture. And while that may happen, at least for now, I feel prouder of my country than I have in years. Here in Peace Corps training, you really feel the call to national service that John F. Kennedy gave when he said, ask not what your country can do for you - ask what you can do for your country. My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man," which is at the heart of the best kind of liberalism. It's great to know that for the past forty-five years, throughout a civil war, various earthquakes, hurricanes and all kinds of political unrest, Peace Corps has remained, trying to impart small, positive changes in the world. I'm also proud that, unlike Guatemala, we have strong(er) child support laws, it's not acceptable to ride with your three young children on a motorcycle, and in most places you can drink water straight out of the tap without getting worms, a parasite or worse.
And while I like how close families are here, I feel good that in my family, we stay close even when we are far apart geographically--it's ok to go out into the world and be yourself and have new experiences, as long as you call home on your sister's birthday.

Monday, May 19, 2008


It's been a little over two weeks since I arrived here in beautiful Guatemala. Here's a brief recap of what all has been going on:
The thing that is really amazing about my time here is that in one day you can have like last Sunday, where there are at least three experiences that are completely simple, completely mundane and at the same time, the kind of thing I know I will remember my whole life.
Doña Susana (my host aunt) took me to mass in Antigua. The church there is centuries old, and very beautiful, and there was a youth orchestra of mandolins, violins and marimbas playing the hymns. We even sung one that I used to sing in the Spanish service at All Saints' back in Arkansas, which was kind of a comfort. The priest was hilarious--apparently. I personally didn't catch any of his jokes, but the congregation laughed a lot. It was Pentecost, and he spoke about having the Holy Spirit in our lives.
Then I took Doña Susana out for a licuado (smoothie), which was really nice. I asked her when the happiest years of her life had been, and she said, "The past five years. The economic situation has improved a little, because my sons work."
Finally, when Seño. Maria (host mom) returned from work, we walked up to the town cemetery to lay flowers on their mother's grave. She died when Maria and Susana were only 18 and 20. The cemetery is at the top of a very, very steep hill, but the view is incredible. You can see the tin and adobe textures of the whole town stretched out , the dark polluted river that winds through all the hills and valleys and the pan-American highway that stretches from Alaska to the tip of Argentina.
It just didn't seem right that so much should have to fit in only one Sunday!
Anyway, all that was before I got sicker than I've ever been in my life. "Lo siento que yo vomité en el piso de su baño," is definitely a Spanish phrase I never wanted to learn, and I'm wearing out the pages of Where There is No Doctor.
Overall, though, I'm happy, the food is good, I love my host family, I have access to a lukewarm shower, and training is OK.
I love and miss you all.