Monday, November 30, 2009

The End

Dear friends,

On October 22, I returned to Guatemala after leaving the service of the Peace Corps to finish up two projects. First, I returned to my village to distribute thirty-seven portraits to students of the sixth grade class there. It was wonderful. The village decorated and prepared a party for me. I felt appreciated and welcomed, something I did not always feel while I lived there. The students received their portraits with great joy, and I felt good about the whole thing. Some of the students from a younger grade danced for us, another young man recited a poem, and afterward we were served cake. It is my dear hope that they will cherish these portraits as a good memory of their childhood forever. I also hope that those who worked on the paintings, to whom I am eternally indebted and unbelievably grateful, understand a little bit more about Guatemala and its inhabitants.

The second thing I finished was completing a purchase of a hearing aid for a young girl in my village. You might remember Doris from an earlier post. I was able to pay for her hearing aid, which her family picked up later that week. I have since spoken to her family on the phone, and they say that Doris’ hearing and speech has already improved. I’m thankful to Living Waters for the World and the Garcia family for working to make that happen.

Now that I have no ties of duty binding me to Guatemala, I have had time to reflect on what it all meant in the grand scheme of things. The past year was difficult, in a lot of ways, but it has left me so filled with gratitude. I’m grateful to my host family during training, for caring for me when I was sick, and for putting up with all of my cultural faux pas and for treating me as nothing less than a member of their own family. I’m grateful for Doña Feliza and Doña Ana, for teaching me some Mam, and maybe saving my life the time I got lost on the side of a mountain. I’m also grateful to a hundred strangers on the bus or in the market who told me to watch my back or offered a smile or an orange on a sad day. Never in my life have I been so indebted to so many people.

I’m also thankful for all of you readers back in the states. Thanks for your comments, your prayers, your positive energy, your donations, your letters—everything. Every postcard or email was monumental to me.

I’m hopeful about the future of Guatemala, not so much because of government aid or because of people like me, living among them for a year, but because of the ingenuity and irrepressible spirit of these people. They have survived 500 years of conquest, a recent genocidal civil war and a currently dysfunctional government. They’ve survived with their native dress and language, though tattered, intact. It is my cautious belief and fervent hope that one day soon they will live up to the promise of Guatemala and their true birthright—peace, justice and prosperity.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

one great day

A few months ago, Living Waters for the World came to an aldea of my site and put in a water purification plant.  It's really cool, makes great water and is working well since it got started.  They worked with a local family to put it in, and while they were there they fell in love with the 10-year-old daughter, a beautiful, sweet little girl named Doris.  They also realized that Doris is mostly deaf.  Her hearing loss is so severe that she has never been able to learn Spanish, and only speaks a little Mam.  When LWW left, they asked me to look into finding an ear specialist for Doris and offered to help with the expenses.  

Friday, Doris, her mother and father, and I went to Guatemala City to see a specialist and get a special hearing test done--one that's only offered in the capitol.  This is a 7 to 8 hour trip for someone coming to my village.  Which is not to mention braving the dangers of the city.  Thankfully, we all arrived on time and in one piece at the doctor's office bright and early Friday morning.

Doris' mother stayed in the waiting room.  I went up with her father.  The doctor, a portly Ladino man who said everything with a dramatic flourish, asked her father a few questions about her general health, then took off her ponytail holder and started to massage her scalp and her face.   Then, without warning, he took a pair of scissors off his desk, and began to cut a quarter-sized bald patch on Doris' scalp.  

"Uh...whatcha doin' that for?" I asked.  

"Oh," he said, nonchalantly.  "It's so the electrode will stick on better."  

Like so many moments I have had in this country, I maintained a somewhat placid facade, while my mind scrambled to make sense of the situation and I personally resisted the urge to panic.  Electrodes??? I thought.  What is going on?  What have I gotten this poor family into?  

After a preliminary ear exam, the doctor bade her lie down on a small exam bed.  He then got out four electrodes and proceeded to place one on the tiny bald patch on her skull, one on the middle of her forehead, and one behind each ear.  

"¿La va a doler?"  I asked.  Will it hurt her?

"No," the doctor assured me she wouldn't feel a thing.  I was skeptical, given the fact that what I knew about electrodes involved electroshock therapy or torture devices.  

"¿No la va a dar un choque?"  It won't shock her?

Finally, Mr. Bedside Manners explained that the electrodes only measured brain activity, to see if her ears were sending signals to her brain.  

He then showed us a graph of a normal ear's hearing patterns.  It looked like a mountain range, with five distinguishable points representing different phases of the test.  

The computer began to read Doris' activity.  Where there should have been peaks and valleys, there was nothing but an empty horizon.  No activity.  My  heart froze.  The doctor confirmed my worst fears as he explained to her father and me that the results showed complete deafness in her right ear.  Something the most powerful hearing aid in the world couldn't hope to fix.  

The doctor, explaining the procedure the whole time with his typical unnecessary gravitas, waxed philosophical.  "As you know...we are all capable...of making...errors.  And...I have made an error just it seems the electrodes are not connected to the computer."

Once again, my mind reeled.  What kind of a quack was this?  What if he hadn't noticed?

The computer started a new reading.  Foothills, ridges, and yes, small mountains appeared where before there was nothing but a flat line!  We knew then Doris could hear in one ear and that a hearing aid could potentially help a lot.  

Her left ear showed much less promising results.  But one ear is enough to develop much better speaking, comprehension and social skills.  

Poor Doris!  The test took about 45 minutes, all told.  As the doctor removed the headphones and the electrodes, I could see a little tear starting to slide down her cheek.  As she got down off the table she started bawling.  I offered to go fetch her mother, but the men in the room thought it wasn't necessary.  "It's over, it's over," they said.  I gave her a Strawberry Shortcake pin I had saved from a birthday party goody bag, and she cheered up a bit (thanks Charlotte).  

Afterwards, we went to the Guatemala Zoo.  Now, let me tell you.  If you ever are having a hard time, a depressing season of your life, go to the zoo with a child--or anyone--who's never been before.  The wonder of seeing a live giraffe, tiger or kangaroo for the first time is positively infectious.  Doris' favorites were the meerkats, and we practically had to drag her away from the monkey habitat.  

Friday was one great day.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

love and mucus sucker balls

Hi Everyone!  

Well, Project 1 has finally been accomplished.  Today I gave out the midwife kits to 11 local midwives.  They were very excited and receptive to get stethescopes, mucus sucker balls, gauze, gloves, a nylon sheet, baby wash, umbilical cutters, umbilical twine, and more.  Many thanks to all of you who helped.

Learning to use the stethoscopes.

Saying "thank you."

The ladies and their kits.  Aren't they a good looking bunch?

Monday, May 25, 2009

facing it

Young people hard at work on the portraits I mentioned in a previous post.  Thanks guys, lookin' good!

Friday, May 22, 2009

the Franco years

This is Franco, my little buddy.  I lived in his house during my first four months in site.  He is what grandparents would probably refer to as "a little stinker."  Around here, he's just travieso.  In fact, he once threw a rotten tomato at me.  However, at the end of the day, I can't help but love the little guy.  We have a lot of fun playing soccer, and I appreciate his imagination.  I went over to their house for dinner last night, and he held up a tortilla, told me it was his motorcycle, and started zooming it around the table.  He also once played soccer with a plastic coke bottle.  Sometimes the armchair psychologist in me thinks that some of his meanness is from separation issues, because his father has been in the United States for pretty much his whole life.  

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

i project

So, I thought I would let you all know about the little projects I am working on right now.  They aren't vast, expansive efforts carefully researched for their sustainability.  One of them isn't even really related to my program at all.  But they are things I think I can do, that I am interested in, which I think have the potential to improve some people's lives just a little bit.  

Project 1:
As I have written before, the local midwives (comadronas) meet for additional training once a month in the Puesto de Salud, where I lead a charla.  We started out talking about things like hygiene during the birth, giving good prenatal care,  danger signs in the pregnancy, birth and newborn.  Then things got technical.  I began doing a lot of research every month and spoke to them about how to cut the cord and care of the placenta.  Finally, we have started to cover broader topics like domestic violence and sexuality.  These ladies are fun.  They are also very intelligent.  Unlike some other groups, they come to every meeting ready to learn.  They participate and add their own comments.  So, when a women's organization called the Zonta Group out of Sarasota, FL with the motto "Advancing the status of women worldwide" donated kits for midwives, I was very excited.  Because almost everything in the kits is disposable, I looked for things to supplement them, like stethoscopes to hear the fetal heartbeat, and those little mucus-sucker-ball thingys.  The kits, while an amazing and generous gift, were a little disappointing when we realized that each one could probably only used for one birth.  I am still looking for more TempoDOT themometers (so they can tell if a woman has a fever--a danger sign) and some rags.  Even though it's not the most sustainable gift, I think it will help the midwives and raise consciousness about hygiene.  Also, I feel good about giving this donation to a group that works hard and always comes in to charlas.

Project 2:
Because of the scarcity of digital cameras, money to make prints, etc, most people have few pictures of their children.  Also, exposure to the arts is limited.  Likewise, I live in a mostly forgotten corner of the world that is not remarkable enough to merit significant coverage in geography or social studies classes.  So, a couple of months ago, I took pictures of all of the students in the sixth grade, and sent them to an art teacher from my home town, Kathy Thompson.  She found a group of artists and interested youth who will paint portraits based on the photos I sent earlier (most of them are from Epworth First Baptist Church, as I understand it, although there are other community partners as well).  Students here will receive portraits of themselves that will hopefully become a cherished keepsake for them and their families for many years.  The artists will receive some cultural education about life here in this rural Guatemalan village as well as the satisfaction of brightening the life of a child.  The portraits are currently under way and should arrive mid to late June.  

So, those are the long term projects I am working on.  If you are interested in getting involved, there are ways you can help!  Just leave a comment or email me.   Many thanks to the Zonta club, Mrs. Thompson, Epworth First Baptist, Demosthenian Literary Society, Len and Carol Crawford and all other community partners involved in these exciting projects!

Saturday, April 25, 2009

no where to run

Today I gave a difficult charla on a very delicate subject—la violencia intrafamiliar, or domestic violence.  I was speaking to the local midwives.  What I was hoping to do more than anything was to just start a conversation about a problem that thrives in secrecy.  As trusted community leaders and health workers in the most remote and underserved areas, these women have a great opportunity to provide counsel to women in distress. 


First I told them a story of a fictional couple named Laura and Luis.  Laura began to suffer from Luis’ beatings, threats and intimidation when she became pregnant.  Things got worse and worse until she realized he was a threat not only to her, but to their children as well.  She finally decided to make a plan.  I asked them what a woman in her situation could do. 


“Nothing,” they all said.  “She just has to suffer through it.”  There’s an old saying in Guatemala “Si te casas, te aguantas” “If you marry, you put up with it.”  They didn’t like the idea of calling the police or going to the justice of the peace, because of what an irate husband could do. 


One midwife shared a terrifying story.  She had a patient who she knew was being abused by her husband, and sadly, the baby was stillborn.  She wanted to go to the justice of the peace about it.  But then the husband began to threaten her, “No matter where you go, no matter what path you take, I’ll find you—and then I’ll kill you,” he told her.  So, the midwife kept her mouth shut about that and decided not to ask so many questions next time. 


I encouraged them to look for skills they have already, like cooking, sewing or making handicrafts to earn money outside of the husband, but they were skeptical.  Even as I suggested different approaches, my solutions sounded a little lame. 


The midwives even refused to be convinced that violence is never the fault of the victim!  This is perhaps the most important point I wanted to impart. 


Basically, it made me realize how entrenched this problem is here.  These women were almost scared to talk about domestic violence in a closed-door room with a group of their friends.  The funny thing is, despite their dismal outlook for women of their generation currently in abusive relationships, they all knew the solution.  Education.  The problems that came up during the charla were always that an illiterate woman with no education and no job training is trapped.  The good news is, the next generation is changing.  More girls are enrolled in schools than the past generation, and thanks to welfare programs like Mi Familia Progresa, enrollment is way up.  

Thursday, April 23, 2009


I write to you tonight as the cool mist from the first rain of the year is dissipating out over the village, finally relieving the stifling heat and humidity of the past two months.  It is 3:18 a.m.  

Those of you who know me well know that Peace Corps has pushed my bedtime back from around 10:00 pm to 8:00, the same bedtime I had when I was 6 years old.  So what am I doing awake at the witching hour?  

Over the past two weeks or so, I have begun to look forward to bedtime with all the anticipation of a root canal.  What used to be a time to relax and let go of the stress of the day has become my personal hell.  You see, up until today, it is hotter than Hell at night, an unbearable humidity that leaves me sweating til about 2 a.m.  But far worse than the heat are what seems to me like the millions of mosquitoes that come out to play as soon as I turn off the lights.  When it first goes dark, I can hear the chorus of a legion of them whining high above my head.  Within about 10 minutes, the high-pitched drone I've come to dread is a whine in my inner ear, and they are starting to nip at any exposed skin.  While I usually cover up pretty well, they feast on my face, fingers and toes.  

So between the heat, the itching, and the buzzing, the eight hours of restorative sleep I used to enjoy have become an intolerable stretch of tossing, turning, slapping, cursing and scheming of ways to get a Peace Corps-issued mosquito net out here without actually having to go to the office (an 8 hour camioneta ride).  

If you're worried about diseases that the little buggers carry, don't.  I'm taking my malaria medicine every day, and the species that carries Dengue only go on the hunt during the day.  If you're worried about my sanity (even "harshly interrogated" terrorists are allowed to sleep more consecutive days than me--Uncle Sam lets them doze off after 11 days, if you're interested) that is probably a valid concern, and all I can say is, We're working on that.

Monday, April 20, 2009


I know it has been a couple of weeks since Easter, but I wanted to share my holiday experience with you all.  First, I was invited to spend Easter with my friend Elvira in an aldea of a town called Aguacatán.  

I had one jar of peach and pecan preserves from Mercier's that I brought back with me from Christmas to share with the special people in my life.  I put the jam and a small American chocolate bar in a gift bag and presented it to the woman who I assumed to be the lady of the house.  "What?  Do you want to give that to my mother?"  Elvira asked me.  

"Um...yes..."  I said.  

"Oh!  This is my aunt!"  

Whoops.  Elvira introduced me to her mom, and I gave the gift, with a cheesy introduction about it being a present from my family to hers, to thank her for allowing me to stay, etc.  She curiously pulled the jam out of the bag.  

"Is" she asked.  "Oh, I see.  It's medicine.  Or is it food?"

"'s food.  It's jam!  You can, you know, put it on bread, or something."

"Hmm...I've never seen anything like this.  But...thanks."  

Well, I thought.  That couldn't have gone any worse.  

Luckily, the weekend got much better from there.  Elvira, who has seven brothers and sisters, is a part of a large, happy and kind family.  It was a real honor to share this most important holiday in Guatemala with them.  

I'm still not sure why, but they celebrate the most on Thursday and Friday.  Thursday is the "dia de comer," the day when neighbors exchange loaves of homemade bread and a dish of sweet, stewed fruit that they only make once a year.  

Friday we went down into the town proper to watch processions.  For anyone not familiar with the Easter traditions of Spain, Portugal and their "subsidiaries," on Easter, many people dress up in a loose interpretation of what the people of Jesus' time would wear--robes, romanesque helmets, etc.  Then they carry large, Easter-themed parade floats through town on their shoulders, flanked by incense swinging youths.  

Resurrection Sunday, which gets all the attention back in the States, is much less of a big deal here, though I'm not sure why.

But this family brought up an interesting question for me.  So, in my project, there are three main technologies we try to bring to people (and two others that are not done as much):  cement floors, better stoves, and latrines.  Now, this family had a latrine and a better stove.  But they were lacking a cement floor, which is, for many people, where you start.  Having a dirt floor makes contamination in the kitchen and all around the house so much more of a problem.  However, this family has invested so much in their children.  My friend Elvira is a nurse.  Her older brother is a teacher who once gained a scholarship for international travel and has visited Norway.  All of the younger children are in school and are motivated to do well.  They have adequate nutrition and good hygiene.  So I ask much would this family benefit from a cement floor?  Obviously they are way ahead of many other rural families when it comes to education, hygiene and nutrition.  Would it be better if they sold their pig, horse or sheep to purchase a cement floor?  Or if one of their kids had to drop out of school to finance it?  I am inclined to say no.  

This family was a great example to me of how complicated development is.  Having technology does not guarantee better health, and the lack of technology does not damn you to a life of diarrhea and respiratory infection.  

It's more complex than that.  

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

what decade am i in?

A word here about lynchings:

Vigilante justice is the most common and to be truthful, probably the most effective, form of castigating criminals in Guatemala.  Especially in very rural areas like mine, where there is not a police station for miles around, when someone steals, kills, rapes, extorts, kidnaps, cheats, etc, the community gets together and takes matters into their own hands.  I have heard that there are a variety of Mayan punishments that get employed, like forcing the criminal to walk through town several times carrying large stones, but the only form I have ever heard of or seen in my area is a good old-fashioned lynching.  

Yes, lynching.  That's right, we're in 2009, here, folks.  

The affair generally begins with the alleged criminal being seized from their home in the middle of the day.  From there they are beaten, often with whips or rubber hoses.  Then gasoline is poured on the offender and he is burned alive.  

The most recent case of this happened in my little corner of the Land of the Eternal Spring about a month ago.  Two young men were extorting a family for money in another town.  When the police got wise, there was a shoot-out on main street, in which one innocent bystander died.  The two men from my pueblo escaped unharmed and fled to a community in my town.  Later that day, they met an untimely end at the hands of justice-seeking community leaders.  

The general consensus of the people in my health center was a shrug followed by, "Pobrecitos, but they should have known better."  As recently as last week, several men from within the health center were threatened by community leaders.  As a result, they had to leave town.  

Now, before you go dismissing an entire people as barbarians, I should remind you that lynching is not all that distant from many of our own communities.  And unlike in many of the race and sexual orientation hate crimes in our nation's past, I would say that in most cases here in Guatemala, the criminals seem to be guilty the majority of the time.  

Furthermore, lynchings here are rarely hate crimes.  They are a form of seeking justice in a society where the murder conviction rate is in the single digits, and where security is everyone's top concern.  Who can say that if a family member was brutally murdered, raped or even simply had all their possessions stolen from them, they would not be tempted to take matters into their own hands if the offender walked free?  Of course, that begs the question of whether the vigilantes are really seeking justice or only vengeance, but that is another matter.

Many have speculated that after a thirty-year civil war, preceded by centuries of bloody clashes with the Spanish, what you have is a society that reaches for a gun to deal with its problems before all else.  But with a corrupt government and a broken judicial system, who could blame them?  

Better governance and less poverty are the only solutions to this problem.  

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

good help is hard to find

Hi Everyone!  It's been so long since my last update.  Here's some of what's been going on:  

In Service Training:  

My old cohorts from Rural Home Preventive Health (my program, for those of you who don't know), reunited for a week of extra training at the Peace Corps office.  This was surprisingly useful!  First, we worked on our technical skills like mixing cement, laying bricks and measuring for stoves, working with older volunteers who are actually completing projects.  The depressing thing was, the old-timers work with and NGO that is less than selective about the families they help.  Because of this, we built better stoves for families that already HAD  better stoves and latrines for families that already had flush toilets!  The benefit of working with such an NGO?  Money.  They have the means to actually DO projects.  The drawback?  Not being able to personally evaluate and select the families.  Our program is the opposite:  no money, total control over the families.  

The rest of the week we learned how to recruit health promoters, make tire gardens, and raise money from the states.  It was great to see my my friends again.  Many of them are having the same problems I am.  Another gratifying thing was that my boss actually admitted that our program has some problems.  It felt good to hear that he understands that.  

Thursday and Friday, the Peace Corps put on a great workshop for us and our Guatemalan counterparts about how to teach HIV/AIDS prevention in our sites.  Here's where things get interesting.   I walked into the Peace Corps office Thursday morning ready to participate in the workshop.  There, sitting alone at one of the picnic tables with a wistful, slightly angry expression, was my counterpart's mistress.*  Oh, no, I thought.  What's she doing here?  I found my counterpart, who will from now on be referred to as Sleazy C, at another picnic table, joking around with some some other men.  "Good morning, C,"  I said.  "How are you?"  

"I'm fine,"  he answered.  "Listen, I need to ask you something.  Since the Doctora couldn't make it, I brought someone else to attend the workshop.  Do you think that's ok?"

" she a health worker?" 

"Well...she's not, you know, employed by the Ministry of Health...but she's sort of a 'community health worker.'"

And so it came to pass that C tried to get the Peace Corps to pay for his mistress' hotel room, lunch, and two days of technical training.  Needless to say, my boss stepped in and refused to allow it.  The worst part was, someone from my health center could have really used that information.  Instead, it was a wasted opportunity for invaluable education and training pissed away by a womanizing jerk.  

Sigh...something's got to change...soon.  

*If you're wondering how I am sure it is his mistress, don't.  He has no shame about the fact that his wife and children live in another town and he keeps a girlfriend in my site.  

Sunday, February 15, 2009

culture matters

Today when I was getting on the bus going back to my village, I passed a young boy and his father, and asked the boy when the bus was leaving. He answered me, and then stared uncomfortably at me, then began whispering to his father in Mam. Now, I can't understand much of the Mayan dialect, but there's one word I know very well--"shnool." Shnool is a word for women outsiders. Mostly in Guatemala it is used to refer to women who are of Spanish descent more than indigenous descent. It's not a nice word.

I turned around and addressed the young man, who was still staring. "Actually, I have a name. My name is Emily. Better that you use my real name--this word, shnool, it's an ugly word, don't you think?"

He seemed embarrassed, and his father tried to tell me a story about how shnool is not actually a bad word, when I know well and good that it is.

Confronting people when they talk about me behind my back, using words they think I don't know like Gringa or Shnool, has become a way of expressing my frustration. You would think that after seven months living in site, people would be used to me, and would refer to me using my name, and not an ethnic slur. You would be wrong. Just the other day a small child ran away from me in the street, clinging to his mother's apron, asking her to protect him from the "kidnapper." And I'll never forget the day when a baby who could not even walk, who viewed me from the vantage point of being strapped on his mother's back said "'nool" as I passed.

I know that confrontation is not the Guatemalan way. It's a society where indirect communication is the norm, tempers are held in check and to be considered enojada, or an angry, ill-tempered person is a strong insult. But I spend so much energy trying to be culturally sensitive all day, this is the one indulgence I allow myself.

When it happens, and it's mostly with children, I stop what I'm doing and approach them. Sometimes they run away, but most of the time they stay. I introduce myself, and tell them that words like shnul are not nice words. I ask them their names, and I try to remember them for next time. Does it work? Not really. But it allows me to let off some steam and maybe, just maybe, to integrate a little more into the community.

Friday, January 23, 2009


There's been a lot of anxious hustle and bustle at the health center this week based on a new statistic that is out. Last week we suffered our first maternal mortality this year.

Can we organize the midwives and do a seminar on how to prevent a death like this? Who should visit the family to find out what went wrong? Are supervisors from the Ministry of Health going to come investigate our health center?

The mother who died was only sixteen--practically a child herself. In the past, women knew that the most dangerous thing they would do in their lifetime was to give birth. But over the past 100 years, maternal mortality rates have dropped dramatically, even in countries like Guatemala.

I wonder: Did she know the danger she was in when she felt her labor pains? Had she spent her pregnancy eagerly anticipating a new baby, or was it a time filled with anxiety about how she would feed and clothe her son, much less survive the birth? Did she get to see him at all? Or were her last moments a delirious blur of worried faces due to blood loss?

I don't know the answers to any of these questions. Nor do I know the answer to a more profound asking of "Why?"

But I think it has something to do with the social and economic factors that lead up to an uneducated sixteen-year-old to give birth in a non-sterile environment (a tiny home with dirt floors) with an incompetent midwife. When it comes to poverty, all the issues are interconnected--health, education, wages, family.

Consider her son. He will now be deprived of the most nutritious food available, breast milk. This is an enormous disadvantage. His family might not be able to afford powdered milk or formula, putting him at great risk for malnutrition. Because it's so hard to sterilize baby bottles, he's also at greater risk for many diseases, including the diarrheal diseases that are too often fatal to poor children here.

Socially, his father, if he was involved at all, will not be able to spend much time at home as he will spend his days farming. There's a good chance he'll go to be a migrant laborer, either in the fruit and coffee plantations on the coasts or all the way to the US. Without the proper love and discipline of a parent, he will be at greater risk for dropping out of school, and becoming a teenage husband himself.

Poverty is a giant, indescribably ugly circle.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

found in translaton

Sometimes the most enjoyable things about being a Peace Corps volunteer have nothing to do with service.

When I feel most in demand and capable to help people, and also when people seem the most grateful for my assistance are the times when I can provide an accurate and immediate translation for someone in need.

Once a man came into the health center looking for me. He heard there was a bilingual American working there. He had recently come from the United States and needed to fax his old job an authorization for his brother to pick up his last paycheck. He dictated, I wrote and he signed the document. In that moment, I knew that I was better able to help him than anyone else in the whole village.

My old host mother from training is an orderly who takes care of a sick American living in Guatemala (Don’t ask me why). She would occasionally ask me to write down things to help her communicate with her patient. In our last “lesson” she asked me, “¿Como se dice ‘trague’ en ingles?”

“Swallow,” I told her, and wrote out sua-lo.

“¿Y para decir, ‘tome”?”


“¿Y, ‘haga popó’?

I paused for a minute. My host mother was asking me how to ask someone to have a bowel movement. Defecate? That didn’t seem right. Too formal. Take a poo? Too casual. Slowly, I wrote down “Poop.” I looked at it again and erased it. In its place I wrote “Please poop.”

A group of medical missionaries (the non-aggressive, Presbyterian type) has been in a town called Jacaltenango for two weeks. Since none of the doctors speak English, PCVs in Jacal recruited their peers to translate for the doctors.

I spent all day Monday in dentistry room, where locals with an acute need for extraction came to see an American dentist.

“Tell her it’s normal to feel shaky after having four teeth pulled.”

"Tell him this will prick a little."

"Tell her she'll feel pressure, but she shouldn't feel pain."

"Tell him I love Jesus."

In doing so, I realized that I was really no less of a tool than the syringe, mirror or gloves that the dentist used to do her job. What’s more, I discovered that I loved it. For the first time in a long time I felt in demand, useful, and like I was providing a real service to people in need (things I hoped I would feel on a regular basis as a Peace Corps volunteer).

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

here he comes...

An image of a saint in our town's parade.

I think this might be Saint Gaspar (or San Gaspar), our town's patron saint. Wasn't Gaspar one of the three Wise Men? It looks like this guy could be a wise man, with his scepter and his giftbox. And even a saint is not fully dressed without a moral, one of the bags that everyone, men, women and children use to carry stuff.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

and a happy new year...

After a marvelous week at home for Christmas and a bittersweet return to the land of the eternal spring, I spent New Year's in Antigua with some Peace Corps friends.

This New Year's has got to be one of my best New Year's.

I think there is a lot of pressure on this holiday to do something "cool." It's the holiday to go out to a hip bar or a nice party in a sparkly dress.

To ring in '09, I split a bottle of a delicious Tempranillo Granacha with a friend at our hotel, and went out after on the Arch street in Antigua. It was packed with people--enough to be exciting, but not so many that you couldn't move at all.

To move right under the Arch, where the action was, we formed a chain and snaked through the crowd like a train.

For the midnight countdown, we looked up into the sky where fireworks were exploding right overhead. They were so close that little pieces of string and dust from the explosives kept falling into our eyes and hair.

At midnight, they set a big metal sign on fire. Each letter spelled out a message welcoming the new year and encouraging the crowd to drink Gallo beer. They burned for about a minute before extinguishing themselves.

I just made it back to my site today. It was a beautiful day, and I distributed some of the gifts that I picked up for my loved ones here. I'm happy to not be traveling anymore, but I'm more determined than ever to accomplish my goals and make a difference here.

Here are a few New Year's resolutions:

To update this blog once a week

To take a great photo once a week

To spend less and save more

To visit my other Huehuetecos

To study Mam every night

To put more time into my charlas BEFOREHAND

To be more zen and roll with the punches more (and to say "these people" less)

As a post script to this post, I would like to say that my last resolution was just tested. As I was writing, two little boys opened the door to my room (from the adjacent storage room that the local government uses) and started speaking in Mam to me. Annoying? Kind of. But I kept my cool and was able to respond to them in their language. Bring it, 2009!