Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The main theme in Guatemala the last month or 2 has definitely been: RAIN. I can definitely say I've never seen as much rain in my life as I have since the beginning of August. Last week I went to help some other volunteers give an HIV-AIDS workshop to middle school students in a village a few hours from my site. It had rained a lot the whole week before, and after the workshop we got word from peace corps that we should avoid non-essential travel due to the danger of landslides caused by the rain. This was later moved to a formal stand fast order, meaning we weren't aloud to travel anywhere. I ended up getting stuck with no way to get home for over a week. It was a bit annoying, and also scary--lots of people across the country were killed or hurt in landslides and other accidents. The worst case was a landslide which buried a bus and several cars on the Interamerican highway in Nahuala, only to be followed by a second landslide in the same place which buried dozens of rescue workers trying to save people buried by the first landslide. It was really awful, especially since that was the road I needed to take to get home. Despite the circumstances, I had a nice time hanging out in Xela and the surrounding area and visiting several friends that I hadn't seen in a while. I got to eat lots of amazing food (was introduced to an incredible Indian restaurant in Xela!), play scrabble, and just get a needed break from things here. Despite not having clean clothes after the first few days and getting worried that Tango (my turtle) was home by himself, a trip to the laundromat in Xela and a call to some friends in site to go rescue Tango made me feel like a new man. Putting on a shirt which was still warm from coming out of the dryer was a luxury I hadn't experienced in ages!

Thursday, August 12, 2010

I got an unexpected but very pleasant surprise when my dad called me last saturday night. “I have someone here that wants to talk to you,” he told me from his house in Jersey City, New Jersey. He handed the phone over, and to my amazement I was greeted by Katarina, the mother of one of the teachers I work with here in the Guatemalan highlands. I was so shocked at first by the connection between these two previously seperate parts of my life, it took me a few moments to understand what was going on and piece together how it had happened.

About a month ago I was talking with Lucia, one of the elementary school teachers I work with, and her mother Katarina. Lucia mentioned that her father was living in the U.S., and her mother Katarina had obtained a tourist visa and was going to visit her husband in a few weeks. While they weren't exactly sure what city in New Jersey he lived in, Katarina recognized the name Jersey City when I told her that's where my dad lived. I told Katarina that my dad would be happy to meet her and her husband while she was visiting the states, and wrote down his phone number and address. I honestly didn't expect them to call. I thought they may feel uncomfortable calling a complete stranger in a foreign country, and more or less forgot about it.

I was mistaken. When they coordinated the visit over the phone (fortunately Lucia's father, Juan, speaks English after 4 years living in the U.S.), my dad specifically didn't tell me beforehand in order to make it a surprise, which it certainly was. The next day my dad told me more about the visit. When they arrived at his door, he knew they were the right people because Katarina was dressed in her traditional Guatemalan traje, which he recognized from when he came to visit me earlier this year. They ate BLTs and drank soda. They chatted about work, family, their lives in Guatemala and the United States, with Juan serving as a translator between Katarina and my dad. They asked to see pictures of me, and took pictures with my dad and of the house. While they had taken a bus the 10 miles or so to get there, my dad drove them home afterwords.

I hope to meet Juan next year when I'm back in the U.S. next year and ask him to show me the Guatemalan restaurants in the area. I told my dad about the 3 different parts of the peace corps mission, and how his hosting people from my site for dinner at his house had so perfectly fulfilled the goals of cultural exchange and understanding. While this experience doesn't deal directly with my work here, it really meant a lot to me that after living in Guatemala for over a year and a half I was able to share a small part of my life and my family back home with people from here in my site.


Otherwise, my work is going well. I've mostly still been observing classes. As always there are some days that are very encouraging and others that are very discouraging, and the struggle is always to make the steps forward outnumber the steps back. The routine definitely gets tedious and frustrating at times, but I suppose it's a very good thing that my role seems to be receding as the teachers continue to take over the different elements of the program on their own. They all know by now what's expected of them—whether they do it or not is a different story—but I suppose I've done my part. My official counterpart, the school superintendent, has also taken more initiative to be involved recently, which is encouraging. Yesterday when I went to see him in his office I even saw he had a “healthy schools” note hanging on the wall.

One event I've planned with my schools for this month which I'm excited about is transversal visits between my 3 schools. The idea is for all the 14 teachers to visit each others' schools over the course of the month. We hope to use the visits to share ideas and suggestions, and for me to organize some training activities. Unfortunately the first visit last week had to be postponed when the school director was in a motorcycle accident. He's ok and is at home recovering, and we plan to reschedule the visit for early september.

The United Nations has recently begun working in my area in conjunction with the TIGO foundation (TIGO is Guatemala's largest phone and telecomunications company). Part of their work is to improve local schools, and several schools in the area have received some major infrastructure improvements. 2 of my schools are among the schools to receive projects.

In Oxlajuj they just finished a project to build a new kitchen, bathrooms and sinks, and the school is currently getting a new paint job. In Ichomchaj they just started construction last week on 3 new classrooms, new bathrooms, 6 sinks, and a kitchen expansion with at least one improved cookstove.

The renovations will really make a difference, especially in Ichomchaj. They've been short 2 classrooms since last year, so 2 classes have been working in makeshift open air classrooms made of corrugated metal. The metal turns the classrooms into an oven during hot days, and on rainy days they get filled with water and mud. The stove will allow the school snack to be cooked in a healthier, more environmentally friendly way, as opposed to over an open fire as it currently is, which not only uses more wood but also creates lots of smoke which often flows into the adjacent preschool classroom. Upper respiratory infections caused by smoke inhalation are one of the two main causes of infant mortality in Guatemala, and the improved cook stove will have a chimney to prevent these problems, as well as serving as an example for the community. The new bathrooms are also very important, since I often see kids going off in the woods when the existing bathrooms are either occupied or disgustingly dirty from being broken and backed up. Possibly most important, however, are the new sinks attached to the new bathrooms. Along with upper respiratory infections, complications from diarrea are the other principal cause of infant mortality in Guatemala, and the World Health Organization estimates that the risk of diarrea can be reduced by up to 80% by adecuate hand washing. Hand washing literally saves lives, and now kids will be able to do so more easily after going to the bathroom and before eating snack.

Despite the undeniable benefits the project will bring to the schools and surrounding communities, my only reservation regards the lack of community involvement in the project. I've been talking about the need for these projects at these schools for almost a year and a half now, and trying to get the parents, school committees and local municipal government to support them, with limited progress. I've talked lots of times about the importance of sustainability and community involvement, as the peace corps philosophy stresses, and that any project must be 'tripartito'--I don't know the english equivalent, but it basically means that the project has to done in '3 parts', supported by both the local municipal government (financially) as well as the community itself (providing free labor to the masons) in order for the peace corps to support the project via the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). Now another organization has come in to do these projects, and I can't help but feel the wind taken out of my sails a bit. On the other hand, however, despite the critical importance of community involvement in the education of their children, shouldn't schools with decent infrastructure—bathrooms, sinks, a kitchen, and enough classrooms—be a GIVEN, a minimum starting point, things they shouldn't have to fight for? Furthermore, I've always complained about how NGOs and other international organizations are always centered around large touristy cities like Antigua and Xela while neglecting more remote communities like the ones I live in, so it's nice to see the U.N. step in take initiative as part of the millenium goals.

Of course there's also a personal aspect of it as well. While many of my friends have played important roles in school and other infrastructure projects in their communities, I really can't take much credit for these projects other than helping to identify the needs in the schools (which I suppose is important). Every peace corps volunteer wants to feel heroic, that they played an essential role in bringing something critically important to their community. I suppose I'll have to be content with the less visible contributions I've made in the schools and community. And of course in the end I also have to keep in mind the MOST important thing: the well-being and quality of life of the kids I work with and their families. That well-being is the real reason I'm here, and is undeniably benefited by these projects.


With only 7 and a half months left of my peace corps service, I've been thinking with increasing freqency about the future. I remember when I first started thinking about joining the peace corps, the thought of what I would do AFTER the peace corps barely crossed my mind. Now, 7 years later by my calculations, the story is somewhat different and the post-peace corps reality is quickly approaching. I remember reading somewhere during training that readjustment to life back in the states is often even harder than adjusting to living in your peace corps community was in the first place. I find this hard to believe (living here the last year and a half has been plenty hard enough), but am nonetheless determined to making the transition as painless as possible.
The more I've thought about it, the more convinced I am that graduate school is my next step. When I graduated from Hopkins I was sick of school and academics, and just wanted to get as far away from it as I could. Now, over 5 years later, things have changed quite a bit. Living in a community with a 70% illiteracy rate and where education is often not appreciated, I find myself very excited by the prospect of being back in an academically stimulating and challenging environment. For the past several months I've been looking at different masters programs in the international development/public policy field. I've made the goal to do at least one graduate school related task every day, and this has not only helped me get a good start on getting my applications together, but has also given me a new sense of purpose and motivation when my work has been frustrating or I've felt down. I've been taking an online statistics course through Carnegie Mellon University, which will hopefully strengthen my application and has also been very interesting and even fun. I'm still deciding which schools to apply to, but have decided to shoot for some very selective programs. I've been pleased to learn about some amazing financial aid possibilities, as well as some special fellowships specifically for returned peace corps volunteers. If all goes according to plan I should be starting in August of 2011, just over a year from now!

Thursday, June 03, 2010

I've been home all week and have been finding out, bit by bit through a combination of facebook posts from friends and word of mouth here, that the extent of the damage from the storm is a lot greater than I initially realized. The roads across the country seem to be a mess, and due to a broken pipe we haven't had running water all week and may not have it back up for a month. It's a lot worse in other parts of the country, however. I've seen reports and pictures from friends of roads, schools, and homes being completely washed away by floods of mud and water, sadly in many cases with people still trapped inside. With all the unforeseeable and unpreventable catastrophes Guatemala faces--so far in just the first 5 months of this year we've seen storms, volcanos, and earthquakes--it makes me realize the challenges Guatemalans face in both their daily lives as well as their long term development.

Surprisingly, the rain seems to have stopped sometime last night. I'm currently stuck in my room, on 'Standfast'--meaning I can't leave my site-- after peace corps activated the emergency action plan yesterday in response to tropical storm Agatha hitting the Pacific coast. It rained constantly yesterday and the day before, and I was starting to get worried when my walls started getting damp. There have been reports of people killed by landslides, and there is a risk of more flooding and landslides until at least tomorrow. By pure coincidence, Agatha, the first tropical storm of this hurricane season, hit only a few days after a major volcanic eruption last week of the Pacaya Volcano. At least 3 people were killed by falling debris, the international airport has been closed due to ash in the sky, and Guatemala city has been covered with several inches of a sand/ash mixture. It's apparently quite difficult to clean up, especially when mixed with all the rain we've received. Being cooped in my room, I've felt a mixture of boredom and excitement with everything, but I guess it's a good, past-due opportunity to update my blog.

The past few days leave little doubt that the Guatemalan rainy season has begun in earnest. The great thing about the rainy season is that, after the last 5 months or so of everything being brown, dry and dusty, all the fields and hillsides are green again, and things are starting to look more alive. The corn (milpa in Spanish, ixim in K'iche) is starting to come up all around. The small green parrots I first noticed last year, but hadn't seen in many months, are back in town, and I've greatly enjoyed watching and listening to them while biking to work. Another random experience happened to me the other day when, while on my way home from school, a guy tried to sell me a LIVE SKUNK he had trapped inside of a burlap sack. Judging from the smell coming from the bag, I think the skunk was quite unhappy with its situation, and I politely declined the purchase.

A few days ago my friend Anibel invited me to go see his family plot. While only a short distance out of town, I saw all sorts of things I'd never seen before. We descended a steep path into a small canyon, where he showed me a natural spring where his aunt and uncle walked 45 minutes round trip, down and back up the steep stairs, to get water. He also showed me several plants I didn't know existed in the area. While I'd seen local crops of corn, beans, and chiles as well as orange, lime, and avocado trees, I didn't know there were also coffee, papaya, bananas, guiscil (a type of squash) also grown within a 10 minute walk from my front door. Everything was green and beautiful, and the whole time Anibel gave me lots of new insights and perspectives about the life of local people here—agricultural and economic activities, and also things him and his friends do such as hunting squirrels, birds, and armadillos at night. It made me realize that despite all of my education and experience in Guatemala, there's still such an enormous cultural and knowledge gap that I don't think I'd ever fill even if I lived here my whole life.

Earlier this week I co-facilitated an HIV-AIDS workshop at the middle school here in town with 2 of the teachers. It was a lot of fun to get to work with the older kids. I live right next door to the school, and lots of the students come talk to me when I sit out in my doorway and read in the afternoons, and I've been wanting to work with them formally for a long time now. I think the workshop went pretty well for my first one. Despite the normal challenges of working with teenagers, in addition to lots of loud rain pelting the roof, they seemed to listen to the information pretty well. We'll do the workshop again with the other class on monday.

A few weeks ago I had a very adventurous vacation with my friend Aaron, traveling through remote jungles and on to the Caribbean Coast, stopping in between to run the Coban half marathon for my second year.

We met up in Coban, one of Guatemala's larger cities up in the tropical department of Alta Verapaz 5 hours north of Guatemala City. From there we traveled in a long, sweaty, crammed chicken bus to Laguna Lachua, a perfectly round, pristine lake in the middle of the jungle near the border with Mexico. There is no road to the lake, so after getting dropped off at the park entrance we had to hike 45 minutes through the jungle to get to the laguna, where we slept in a small park lodge in beds under mosquito nets. It was well worth the hike as soon as we went swimming in the warm, crystal clear turquoise water.

Aaron brought his mask and snorkel, and there were all sorts of tropical fish in the water—more than I'd ever seen in fresh water. There were also crocodiles, so we were advised to stay in the swimming area and not go in the water at night. We went out to the dock our first evening and shined our flashlights to see a baby crocodile, not more than a foot long, swimming in the shallow water. We spent 2 nights at Lachua, and during our second day we met up with 2 peace corps volunteers in the area to go hiking in another nearby park, where we saw a bunch of howler monkeys, iguanas, and lots of birds. We walked to several other lagunas, including one small pond that was bright red for mysterious reasons.

We were told these lagunas were also inhabited by crocodile populations, and we did see one dark green back swimming slowly through murky water at one point. We also passed by an old abandoned oil drilling operation, including a large metal pump, and climbed a hill and saw a panorama of the largely deforested surrounding landscape.

Heading back to Laguna Luchua, the chicken bus didn't have any room inside, so we climbed up onto the roof—it seemed like a good idea at the time, and was a lot of fun. Unfortunately I wasn't paying attention, and during the bumpy ride both my cell phone flew out of my pocket AND my beloved digital camera of almost 5 years somehow got it's screen smashed. RIP. And to top it off, my supposedly waterproof watch got condensation inside. On to happier things.

From Lachua we headed back to Coban for the half marathon the following day. There were about 10 or so other peace corps volunteers running, and we met up with some of my friends for a pasta dinner for runners the night before.

In hindsight, it may not have been the best idea to do so much hiking in the 2 days before a long running event, but I felt pretty good the morning of the race. I'd been training hard since january and felt pretty confident, so I started off with a pretty quick pace. Again in hindsight, this may or may not have been the best strategy, because by the last third of the race I was REALLY hurting. The climate in Coban is very different from up in the highlands where I live and train, and it was HOT and only got hotter as the sun got higher in the sky. I think the different environment from what I was used to really affected me, because I was greatly struggling, both mentally and physically by the end. Every step was a struggle, and I had to continuously tell myself to keep going, to resist the urge to stop and rest, because I knew once I stopped running I would not be able to start again. Finally, after what seemed like the longest last half hour of my life at the end, I crossed the finish line in 1 hour, 50 minutes-- 6 minutes faster than my time from last year. I staggered out with the other finishing runners, not even able to walk in a straight line, picked up my metal and a bottle of cold water, and almost collapsed to rest with my friends.

Wanting to take advantage of the limited vacation days we had, Aaron headed out on another long, sweaty chicken bus ride that same afternoon headed east. We had a great time meeting and joking around with our fellow passengers, who randomly enough included a group of clowns—still in complete makeup— who'd been performing in Coban.

The scenery along the way was some of the most spectacular I'd seen in Guatemala. That geology of that part of the country, extending far north into the Yucatan penninsula, is largely comprised of calcium limestone deposits, and as we traveled the long dirt roads through spectacular jungle scenery, huge freestanding limestone pinnacles jutted abruptly from the ground, often shrouded in mist at the top and beautifully lit in the late afternoon light.

The following day Aaron and I visited a park called Las Conchas (the shells), a river with a series of spectacular rapids and waterfalls culminating in a sheer drop off of water, probably 30 feet high and 100-200 feet wide. We spent the morning exploring the area, swimming, and taking pictures of each other jumping off the big waterfall. It felt like the tropical version of our favorite winter past time of taking pictures of each other skiing off cliffs into the waist-deep snow in Colorado.

The next morning we caught a ride in the back of a truck and continued east—through even more incredible jungle scenery— to Rio Dulce, the freshwater river connecting Guatemala's largest lake, Izabal, to the Caribbean. We took a boat ride down the river, where the marinas we passed reminded me of my Gramma Judy. When I told her I was going to Guatemala a year and a half ago, the first thing she told me was about how she used to ride out hurricane season with her boat on the very same river I was now on myself. I thought about her as we went along the water past more incredible jungle and limestone cliffs.

We spent 2 nights on a small tributary of the river in a very cool hostel in the middle of the jungle. We had a great time relaxing in the hammocks, jumping off the rope swing into the river, meeting other travelers, and kayaking up the river to check out some natural hot springs and caves.

Our final destination was Livingston, at the end of the river on the coast of the Caribbean. Livingston is known for being the center of Guatemala's Garifuna culture and language. Comprised of descendants of escaped slaves from St. Vincent hundreds of years ago, the garifunas are spread across the Caribbean coast of Honduras, Guatemala, and Belize. Walking the streets felt a little strange to me after having lived the last 16 months in the highlands. While the Caribbean influence was very strong, I could also tell we were still in Guatemala. I'd been wanting to visit this unique corner of Guatemala for a long time, and was very happy to finally get the chance. That afternoon we had a good time walking along the beach a few km out of town to swim in some natural pools and waterfalls called “siete altares”. We stayed in a quiet hotel with bungalows on the water, where we had a nice dinner and chatted with the Guatemalan/Belgian owners.

The next day we took a boat ride on the Caribbean to Puerto Barrios, and from there another long bus ride back to Guatemala City (fortunately this time more comfortable with AC), then on to Antigua, where we went out dancing for a bit that night. Aaron headed back to the states early the following morning, after a great vacation with great times and great friends!

The only other experience I wanted to write about was the opportunity I had to translate last month for a group of American surgeons in Guatemala on a medical mission. They were doing operations to repair things like cleft palates, hernias, and tumor removals. It was a really amazing experience! I was mainly helping organize and prepare things with people before the surgery, but I also had the opportunity to translate a few times during the actual procedure when it was only local anesthesia. A lot of “does this hurt? Tell us if it hurts?” A lot of the people were from remote indigenous areas and didn't even speak Spanish, so we actually needed 2 translators to communicate with the patient. It made things tougher and I'm sure a lot of words were lost, but in the end we were able to get the essentials across-- “Ouch” is pretty universal!

The most amazing thing about the experience, however, was what I realized about one of the surgeons the first day. When I first met the group, I immediately thought that one of the surgeons in charge of the group looked strangely familiar. “Are you a plastic surgeon?”, I asked. “Yes”, he responded. “From Baltimore?” I continued. Again, he answered in the affirmative. It turns out he was the same surgeon who had removed my melanoma 5 years ago to the month! I truly couldn't believe the coincidence, I was literally shaking at first from the shock. I had a great time catching up with my former surgeon, and the experience of re-uniting with him really brought my peace corps experience full circle for me, reminding me of how much I had gone through to be here. The last time I had seen him, 5 years ago, I had been going through what was undoubtedly the hardest time in my life. All I'd wanted to do after graduating college was to go in to the Peace Corps, and was so frustrated that my cancer made me medically ineligible for 3 years. Now, 5 years later I had finally achieved my dream. Despite the frustrations, boredom, loneliness, and many other challenges I face here, that reminder from the past gave me great inspiration to keep going. As I write these words, I now have less than 10 months to go until finishing my service. I hope I can make them good ones.

Monday, April 05, 2010

Last week was Semana Santa, Holy Week, a very important event throughout all of Latin America and particularly here in Guatemala since it is a very Catholic country, probably the most religious country I've ever been in. I was invited to participate in the activities as a Roman soldier in the “cuadro viviente”, the dramatization of Jesus's last days. I wasn't sure what to expect, but it turned out to be a really wonderful experience, a lot of fun, exhausting, and most importantly a huge boost in my community integration.

We've been rehearsing the last several Sundays, but since the rehearsals were mostly in K'iche, and kind of disorganized to begin with, I wasn't exactly sure what was going on most of the time. Nonetheless I was able to wing it pretty well just by following what the others were doing. We started off last Sunday, Palm Sunday (domingo de ramas) with a procession through town to the church, with everyone carrying branches. On thursday morning my host family invited me for traditional breakfast of “sheka”, a flat, pancake shaped bread served with sweet molasses, a traditional food eaten during semana santa in this area. That afternoon the dramatization began in earnest. All of the other soldiers and I went around town from house to house asking for “Pan para Judas”, “Bread for Judas”, kind of trick-or-treat style, and people gave us more shekas. Afterwords we re-enacted the last supper in the town square in front of the church. I could sort of follow what was going on, but pretty much just did what the other soldiers did.

After Jesus was betrayed by Judas (who was egged on by "demons") and captured, he was put into “jail”, a small wooden cage in front of the church parish building, where he held a basket asking for donations from the people to cover the week's expenses. Each soldier had to take turns guarding him for an hour throughout the night, but the poor guy playing Jesus had to sit out until midnight, then go back the following morning at 5am!

After finishing my guard duty at 7pm I walked around town a bit, which was way livelier than normal. Lots of people originally from the area, who now work in the capital or other parts of the country, travel home for semana santa, so I saw lots of new faces I didn't recognize. I went and watched some of my friends begin work on their “alfombras”, enormous carpets made of dyed sawdust. Community groups from the different villages in the area spend the entire night before good friday constructing the alfombras, commonly with elaborate and intricate designs of various colors. I was already pretty exhausted from the days activities, so I went home to sleep after watching only the first layers of sawdust being layed out.

The following morning, good friday, was the big day. I left my house in full soldier atire—Shirt, skirt, cape, sandals with strings tied up to my calves, sword, lance, and of course the big metal helmet with the red stripe on the top (we got lots of jokes that it looked like a broom on our head!) En route to the church I stopped to admire the finished alfombras and chat with their proud but exhausted builders.

We began the activities with a procession around the town, stopping at each of the 14 alfombras to read from the bible and say prayers. The procession passed right over the sawdust alfombras, which were of course pretty much destroyed in the process.

The hardest part for me was that we had to kneel down on the hard street for about 5 minutes each time. I was not used to kneeling down like that, and it was even harder since my knees were bare. It was also getting pretty hot as the sun climbed higher in the sky. I did my best to tough it out without complaining—if the old women could do it without any apparent problems I had no excuse! Nonetheless, about half way through I was in a lot of pain and wondering if I'd be able to make it the whole way, when to my relief the captain of the soldiers called us to duck out and rest a bit. Little did I know, however, this was only because the hardest part was yet to come. After the procession we re-enacted the lead up to the crucifixion and the crucifixion itself. Jesus was judged, made to carry the cross, whipped (they even used fake blood to make it look more real), and eventually hoisted up onto an actual cross along with the 2 thieves. It was a very moving experience to see this powerful demonstration of the devotion and faith of the people in my community. Nonetheless, afterwords I was completely spent and went home to rest.

Saturday was a day of rest and relaxation for most of the community, with lots of people out and about in town. I watched some soccer games in the stadium in the afternoon, and one of the teams invited me to sit and hang out with them in the stands for a while after their game. I often find that the most memorable experiences I have are completely spontaneous and unplanned, and that's exactly what happened later that night when I was taking a walk through town. I ran into my friend Aníbel, who invited me to go help out with the Mass, which was just starting. We walked in through the back of the church, passed in front of everyone who were all taking their seats, and passed by the alter to the back off-stage area. I helped place some flowers in the stage during one part of the service, and also helped take the collection afterwords using a velvet bag on a stick. It was a surreal experience, again rather powerful, walking through the pews, overflowing with people in the aisles and out the enormous doors into the street; seeing old women reaching into their traditional huipil and finding a coin or two, giving it a kiss in blessing or crossing themselves before putting it into the bag; or a parent handing a coin to their small child and pointing to give it to me.

The following morning, Easter sunday, we had another early morning procession, beginning in the cemetery, to re-enact the resurrection. Jesus was back, this time in a triumphant white robe, and we again made stops at 14 stations en route to the church for Easter mass. This time we were celebrating, which meant two things were different: First, lots and lots of firecrackers and tremendously loud bombs going off ever few minutes. The second, more pleasant difference: we didn't have to kneel down like the previous processions. Nonetheless, I was still completely exhausted by the time we reached the doors of the church.

I reflected quite a bit throughout the week on all the new experiences I observed. I was here last year for semana santa as well, but this time I had a far better understanding of the activities and their cultural importance. It was amazing to see the time and effort put into the planning and execution of the various activities. Of course, I couldn't help but be a bit skeptical about priorities at times, thinking to myself “if only they spent half the time, effort and money on improving their schools as they spend on festivals...” It definitely makes me cringe a bit to think of the contrast between all the elaborate decorations for semana santa and the embarrassingly underfunded public schools. Nonetheless, the week certainly gave me a new respect for the community's ability to organize itself and take incredible action towards a common purpose.

More than anything, though, I think the week was very helpful for my integration into the community. Lots of people saw me during the various activities and I think they appreciated my participation and respect for their traditions. Lots of people even said that I should be Jesus next year... I think because I let my beard grow out a bit and it's the thickest of anyone in town, so they say I look like Jesus! The problem, however, is that they do the dramatization in K'iche, which would make it difficult for me to say the least.

In any case, last week I marked exactly one year since swearing in as an official Peace Corps volunteer (March, 27). I hope so strongly that semana santa will mark the beginning of a happy and successful second year of service.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

This morning was pretty eventful, with not one but two earthquakes about 4 hours apart. I was in my bed a bit before 5 a.m. when I felt the first one. I'm not sure if I was already awake or if the shaking woke me up, but I was still half asleep and wasn't sure I hadn't dreamed the whole thing until I went online and saw a facebook post from my friend about the quake. Then later that morning I was in a meeting with the school committee at the Chua chioj school—we had already commented about the earthquake—when another more powerful one struck. The ground shook for about 30 seconds, not powerful enough to do any damage but definitely noticeable. I've been a bit jumpy since then, and I keep on imagining I feel the ground shaking.

The last few weeks, the first of the new school year, have been filled with both exciting advances as well as frustrating setbacks. My goal this year is to get the schools to take more ownership of the program, with the idea of making it self-sustaining, or at least partially so, by the time I leave. In addition to promoting consistent hand-washing and teeth brushing systems and other health related routines and activities in the classrooms, my main push has been to encourage teachers to begin teaching their own health classes this year, as opposed to last year where I worked more directly with the students. It's been kind of a roller coaster so far—as I expected, it's taken a while to get teachers going with the classes. In fairness, they do have lots other responsibilities and legitimate obstacles. Nonetheless, some teachers have really impressed me with how seriously they're taking the program and have planned quality health lessons, complete with additional materials and engaging activities. One teacher in particular, who I've had a lot of problems with him in the past, completely surprised me. Last year his class always seemed out of control, and he was always yelling at the kids and I even saw him hit them with a belt on one occasion. I was expecting problems getting him to participate actively this year, but to my great surprise, when I arrived to his classroom he had a solid lesson on hand washing—complete with paper cutouts of soap, water, hands, etc— prepared for his students, who listened attentively and participated. I like to think that my influence may have had a positive impact on this teacher, but whatever the cause I hope he and all the 14 teachers I work with will continue to progress forward throughout the school year.

Last week I went to help out with the training of the new batch of healthy schools trainees, and led a mini-workshop modeled after the workshops I did with my teachers last month, in order to teach the trainees about doing trainings in their schools. Everyone seemed to enjoy the session and I got positive feedback from the trainees. It felt nice to have knowledge and insights to share from actual experience, and to not feel like a rookie anymore.

My experience today was not quite so encouraging. For the third week in a row the 2 teachers at chua-chioj—my smallest school but also one of my favorites because of the enthusiastic kids—were still not prepared with health classes, telling me that they'd been so busy they hadn't had time to start. We had, however, planned a meeting with the school committee to discuss possible infrastructure projects to work on this year. The earthquake, which interrupted the meeting halfway through, seemed to be nature's way of summing up the overall tone of the meeting. Despite the enthusiastic pitch Profe Luis and I gave to try to motivate the parents in charge of the school to take on one or more projects, their response was half-hearted at best. They told us that, while they knew what we were saying was correct and the school had lots of important needs, there were lots of obstacles as well. For example, a project to connect the school's bathrooms, which are currently not in use, would need to be approved by the community's water committee, which currently prohibits flush toilets due to the scarcity of water. I was told that the bathrooms were only built in the first place because it was a requirement for a school to have bathrooms, but they were never actually intended to be used. Another problem is that the current school committee did not seem to have coordinated very well with the previous committee, and were also reluctant to start a new project because their term was up in another 5 months and would be replaced by new members at that point. Another problem we discussed is that in order to get funding from Peace Corps, the project would also have to be supported and funded in part by both the local community as well as the larger municipality, which both seem to be difficult tasks. As I have already observed on several occasions, local politics here are complicated and, sadly, seem fairly corrupt as well. Getting the mayor to support a project without having the right connections or strings to pull will definitely be an uphill battle. Most disappointing, however, is what the men told me about the local community itself, which is divided and, I was told, not particularly interested in supporting the school. Even the school committee members themselves did not seem overly motivated, with one of them reading a newspaper in the middle of the meeting. I find myself feeling jealous of my friends who've been able to successfully do infrastructure projects in their schools, but I also have to keep in mind that they're working mostly with schools that have already been in the healthy schools for 3 years, while all mine are new to the program, and they're also mostly working in areas that are relatively better off economically than my communities, which makes a large difference in obtaining community support. Despite the frustration, I did feel satisfaction that I'm doing all that I feel I can to encourage progress, and hopefully today's meeting will inspire more steps forward, even if it takes time to change things.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

This week was the first week back to school of the year. It feels good to get back to my 'normal' routine after the last very full month, in which I hosted 4 different guests since Christmas.

The week before Christmas my friend Erin, a former Peace Corps volunteer in Peru who's now in medical school in Chicago, came to visit. I first met Erin in Peru when I led trips there for Broadreach during the summer of 2007. I spent 3 weeks with her helping coordinate a health-education service project very similar to the work I'm doing here in Guatemala. It was a wonderful experience and really motivated me to continue my efforts to join the PC. I was really excited to have the chance to show Erin my life and work here in Guatemala and we had a great time talking about the many similarities and differences between these two indigenous Latin-American countries. Erin was here on a scholarship from her medical school, and as part of the scholarship had to do some sort of community service while she was here. Since it was the week before Christmas (ie. When nobody was working) we decided to do some home visits in the communities I work in. We spent 3 days—a day in each community—walking from house to house, talking with the kids I work with and their families. We did a variety of activities, such as reading 'Mariquita Cochinita', a story about a little girl who learns about healthy habits, playing a matching game with one good habit and one bad habit (e.g. one card with clean hands and one card with dirty hands), doing a simple nutrition-themed jigsaw puzzle, and singing the various healthy schools songs. I was a bit nervous beforehand. If someone showed up at a typical American's door, invited themselves in, and told everyone inside to wash their hands and brush their teeth, they would probably get kicked out pretty quickly. But I was happy to be warmly welcomed into nearly all the homes we visited. Most of the houses had kids I knew (at least by face) from school, and most of the parents seemed to know who I was. I even got to use the little K'iche I know to explain who I was and why I was there. We worked primarily with the kids but also encouraged the adults and older siblings to join in. While many were shy and only wanted to watch at first, they all seemed curious and by bit they began to participate more in our activities. Many families gave us something small to eat or drink—an orange, a piece of bread or a cup of juice—a Guatemalan tradition for visitors to your house. Erin even was able to borrow some traditional clothing in a few of the homes and we took some laughter-filled photos with the families. It was an amazing experience for all of us, and quite useful for my work for several reasons. First, it allowed me reinforce the things I've been working on with the kids for the last year with the entire family. Second, it helped me build and strengthen relationships with parents, whose support I'll need in order for the project to be truly successful. Finally, the visits gave me a much more complete picture of the home environment the kids I work with live in on a day to day basis. I saw that there's a pretty wide spectrum of conditions, from relatively better off families that have nice homes with running water and letrines, TVs and other electronic equipment, and even a computer in at least one case, to families on the other side of the spectrum that live in complete squalor, with garbage strewn everywhere, no sanitary latrines or running water, and sick looking kids running around barefoot and filthy. The majority of the houses were in between these two extremes, and I think the experience gave me a much better (though still far from complete) perspective of the challenges rural Guatemalan kids face.

From my site we headed to Lake Atitlan for Christmas eve in Jaibalito, the same beautiful town Aaron and Aneta spent their honeymoon in.

We made reservations for dinner on December 24th at La Casa del Mundo, one of Guatemala's nicest hotels, and when we showed up to eat I was delightfully surprised to run into Jamie, one of my closest friends in the PC, who just happened to be staying there with his mom. We joined them for dinner, then had an unforgettable time partying it up back at the hostel afterwords—as with all Guatemalan holidays, there were lots of fireworks lit off, and also lots of food and drink.

We headed to Antigua on Christmas day, then on the 26th I went to the airport to pick up my brother Eric, who had a ticket to spend almost a full month with me in Guatemala. From the airport we went straight to Xenacoj where we spent a warm, laughter-filled afternoon with my host family.
I cooked curry for everyone, and my host sisters and mother braided Eric's hair in corn rows for him.

That evening we headed to the bus station in Guatemala city where we got on an overnight bus to Flores, far off in Guatemala's largest, jungle filled northernmost department of Petén. The plan was to spend 5 days hiking through the jungle to El Mirador, the remote ruins of an ancient Mayan city almost to the northern border with Mexico. In addition to Erin, Eric, and myself we were joined by another of my PC friends named Judy.

We arrived in Flores the following morning and spent several hours walking around the small city on an island in Lake Peten Itza. Eric and I saw a group of people gathered around the shore, looking at a small crocodile (it may have been an alligator, I'm not sure). We decided against swimming.

In the afternoon we climbed up onto the most decrepit, broken down looking bus I'd ever seen (after living in Guatemala a full year now that says a lot!) for the 4 hour journey further north to Carmelita, the tiny village of mainly wooden huts where we were to begin our hike. It was a beautiful ride through windy dirt roads surrounded by jungle and grassy fields, into a Guatemala I'd up to then never experienced.

The following morning we met our guide Wilter, our mule driver Nino, and the 5 mules who would be carrying our supplies—food, water (there were no sources on the route), tents, sleeping bags, clothes, etc. It felt like quite an expedition for only the 4 of us! Still fairly clean and well rested, we headed off on our 5 day hike. It took 2 full days of hiking to arrive at the main ruins. As much as I'm tempted to write about the miserable conditions we had to heroically forge through, the truth is that, fortunately, it was flat almost the whole way, the trail was good, it wasn't too hot or buggy at that time of year, and it didn't rain too much for the most part. Nonetheless, it was a long hike—I was told over 40 miles one way—and fairly monotonous. We had fun though, talking and getting to know our guide. While we quickly discovered that Wilter was not particularly knowledgeable about Mayan history or archeology—he was an illiterate campesino who'd lived his entire life in that one small village—he was a really fun, funny guy and nonetheless had lots of interesting information to share with us. He told us about harvesting 'chicle', the sap which comes from the tree of the same name, which is the main economic activity and source of income for most families in the region. He also told us about what it was like as a worker excavating the ruins at El Mirador, a job most of the men in the area had partaken in at one time or another. More than anything, we all agreed that he was a warm, friendly guy who genuinely did his best to make us feel comfortable and enjoy the trek. He was also a great cook—even if not the most sanitary one—and we enjoyed delicious, often freshly cooked meals throughout the entire trek. Nino, our 'arellero' –mule driver—was more quiet and reserved. I couldn't tell if he resented us or not, but after a few days he started to warm up to us and shared some of his stories and experiences as well.

During the trip we saw lots of wildlife—groups of spider monkeys in the canopy high above, jumping fearlessly from branch to branch; toucans, parrots, and many other tropical birds calling through the trees; coatis—kind of raccoon looking mammals with long tails (one got into our food one day and we found a hole bitten into our honey). We also saw some sort of wild pigs as well as two wild cats which quickly darted away as soon as they saw us, among various other birds, mammals, and insects.

After 2 days we arrived at our destination. While I hadn't done an overwhelming amount of research about El Mirador, I knew that it was a major ancient Mayan city which contained the largest Mayan temple ever built, and that it was also less restored and less visited than other ruins such as Tikal. I pictured vine covered stone temples, in the style of Indiana Jones. The reality, I was soon to discover, was quite a bit different. While El Mirador had indeed been an immense city, and indeed did contain the largest Mayan pyramid ever built, the city had been abandoned a thousand years ago, and in the meantime the entire site—including all the immense temples—had been completely buried under dense jungle. Instead of being covered by a few vines, the ruins were completely entombed by many feet of dirt, trees, and other vegetation. While some select parts have been excavated and restored, walking through most of the site you'd have no idea that you were in the middle of an ancient city. Even the largest temples looked like at first glance like steep hills (almost like mini-volcanoes), and the whole experience required a lot more imagination than I'd expected.

Nonetheless, once I adapted my expectations to meet reality, the ruins were no less impressive and breathtaking. It was impossible not to appreciate the immense, patient, power of nature; Earth's ability to reclaim what his hers and destroy even the most ambitious works of man. At the same time, it also made me begin to grasp the amount of human effort required to excavate and restore ruins, and gave me a new appreciation for more restored ruins I've visited such as Macchu Pichu in Peru and Teotihuacan in Mexico.

We spent a full day exploring the different parts of the city, including a number of different temples of varying sizes and a piece of a wall which had been restored. Underneath one of the temples there is also a locked door leading to a series of tunnels. By giving the guard a few quetzales tip he will open the door for you to go on a self-guided tour of the tunnels, including to see some 2,000 year old paintings with the original paint still undisturbed.

The entire place is a living archeological site. While other ruins and museums I've visited have lots of fenced off areas, no such barriers existed in El Mirador, and we were free to explore pretty much wherever we wanted. I was curious about the impact visitors had on the ruins, and tried to be conscientious to look and not touch. At one place we observed several dozen plastic bags of broken stone fragments, artifacts that we assumed had been categorized and organized like giant jigsaw puzzles to be reassembled at a later time and place.
We ran into 2 other trekkers and their guide, who it turned out knew about the Maya and the history of the site, and they graciously invited us to tag along and listen to his informative explanations of things, which I found quite interesting. Both days we climbed to the top of large pyramids to watch the sunset. While the afternoon clouds frustrated our efforts, the view was still amazing—the various pyramids were the only places to go to get a panoramic view of the surrounding jungle for many miles in every direction.

After 3 days—2 days hiking and 1 exploring the ruins, we spent 2 more days hiking home. The trip back was quieter, as we were getting tired and wanted a shower, but still fun. The last night in the jungle was New Years eve, and we camped at El Tintal, which we learned was a smaller ancient Mayan city (apparently there are quite a few of them in northern Guatemala) with a pretty large pyramid of its own. We climbed to the top and were finally rewarded with a proper sunset. I stayed up for an extra hour, and as the sounds of the jungle at night began to come alive I was rewarded with an incredible full moon rise over the horizon. Using the moonlight, I carefully walked down the steep steps of the temple, through a bit of jungle back to our campsite, where our guides had made a fire for dinner. I had bought supplies for s'mores back in Flores and was saving them for New Years, and in addition to ourselves we cooked marshmallows for our guides and other hikers camping in the same site.

At a few minutes to midnight the 4 of us climbed back up to the top of the pyramid, where we counted down to the new year and probably woke up the entire jungle with our shouts of celebration.

After a cold but glorious shower back in Carmelita the next day, we bid goodbye to our guides and headed back to Flores, where we again took the night bus back to Guatemala city. After bidding goodbye to Erin, who had to fly home to begin classes, and Judy, the group was reduced to Eric and myself.

I spent the next several days preparing for the workshops I had planned to conduct with the 3 schools I work with the following week. I created and edited documents and other materials for a variety of activities, typed the agenda and went over it numerous times, called the school directors and the school superintendent (my boss) to confirm the plans, bought snacks and drinks for everyone, and ended up making hundreds of photocopies and spending several hours just organizing all the materials. I had warned Eric that I really needed to focus for these days, since it was really important for me to start the year off on the right foot. He helped me organize some of the handouts I prepared. The night before, I baked 2 loaves of banana bread, the finishing touch, and was ready for the 5 hour workshop the following day.

I was really nervous—my time in Guatemala has prepared me to expect the unexpected, as well as the nearly given rule that nothing will start on schedule. Sure enough, we started 45 minutes late, but after that everything went great. My primary goal this year is to work with the teachers and transition them into taking more direct ownership of the healthy schools program, with the long-term goal of making it a fully self-sustainable program in the future. With that end in mind, I divided the activities into 3 parts: First, addressing general teaching techniques and methods; second, reviewing the Healthy Schools program and the tools used to implement it; and third, setting priorities and formulating specific plans and strategies for each school. I tried to plan activities that would force the teachers to take initiative and participate actively, and was nervous about how willing they would be. Nonetheless, they really impressed me by taking each activity seriously, participating more than I had expected, and even taking notes on a lot of the things we did. In the end we actually ran out of time, which was fine because it gave me the chance to do the planning activities another day with each school individually. At the end of the day I gave out official diplomas to each teacher, and had them fill out evaluation forms. I was very pleased to receive very positive feedback as well as some great suggestions.

The following day I gave a shorter, 2 hour workshop with the school directors from all the area schools—over 30 in all, more than I had originally thought. I knew that I couldn't work individually with each school, but the idea was to give an introduction to the Healthy Schools program and some of the basic information and recommendations about how to begin implementing the program in their schools, and if there were any schools that showed more enthusiasm I could give them more information and maybe make some visits to their teachers and kids. In the end the workshop was mediocre at best. I was again nervous, and never really relaxed the entire time because it seemed that nobody was really listening or cared much about what I had to say. It was discouraging, but at the same time it made me realize how much of a difference there was in the schools I've already been working with for almost a year, most importantly in the teachers' attitudes and motivation to implement the healthy schools program in their schools. Instead of seeing the less than effective workshop as a setback, I saw it as a vindication of the last year I've spent in the 3 schools I work in. Despite the slow rate of change, which often leaves me feeling immensely frustrated, my experiences from the 2 vastly different workshops showed me the undeniable progress we've made.

I spent the next week hanging out with Eric. While I was anxious to relax a bit after the past few intense weeks, Eric was understandably eager to explore my town and more of Guatemala. I spent another weekend at Lake Atitlan, first back in Jaibalito—where I was starting to become a regular—then in Panajachel, the main tourist city on the lake, where we spent a night out dancing to say goodbye to 2 PC friends that decided to leave early and go home to the U.S. We also met up with Tom, a high school friend of ours from back in Connecticut. Tom came back to my house with us, and I spent a few days showing him around my town, walking him to a few of my schools and following up with the teachers.

That Friday we headed back to Antigua where, after another night out dancing (Eric did pretty well for not speaking Spanish and having never danced either Reggaeton or Salsa...) we picked up our dad at the airport in Guatemala city the next morning. We hung out for 2 nights at a nice hotel in Antigua (the kind I would never think of staying in normally) and checked out the city. It's nice to visit a familiar place with new visitors, because they often give you a new perspective and make you notice details you would normally overlook. In my year in Guatemala I've been to Antigua many times, and am normally preoccupied thinking about where I'm going to eat or hang out with my friends. So, it was nice to have my Dad around to point out all sorts of things—stuff like old doors and other architectural details—I'd never noticed before. To be totally honest, I probably won't notice them again, but it was still nice, and more than anything it was fun hanging out with my Dad. Eric got sick and spent most of the time in the hotel room throwing up and having the runs, so I got plenty of time alone with Dad.

Before his arrival, while planning the trip itinerary and transportation, I gave my Dad a rundown of the different transportation options. I told him all about riding on “Camionetas”, the old American school buses I've written all about in previous blog entries. Thinking back on my own first impressions of this preferred method of Guatemalan transportation—the disorientation and discomfort of riding crammed in with a hundred other people, many of whom haven't bathed any time recently, passing other buses speeding way too fast uphill around blind curves, all while listening to blaring Ranchera music—I wasn't sure it would be my Dad's cup of tea. Nonetheless, he was adamant about wanting to experience how I REALLY lived and insisted on at least giving it a try.

The first bus was no big deal, but when we switched in Chimaltenango to get on the 2 and a half hour bus to Quiche, every seat was full, forcing us to sit in the perilous 3rd seats, leaving about half the cheek hanging off the edge into the aisle. I was worried about how Dad would hold up, but he said he was fine, and was at least holding in any discomfort quite stoically. Fortunately, after about half an hour the bus emptied out enough for us all to to get real seats, and the rest of the ride passed comfortably without further incident, as did as all the other bus rides we took throughout the week.

My dad specifically planned his trip to coincide with my town's “Feria”--the once yearly festival all Guatemalan towns have, complete with carnival rides and games, lots of vendors, music, dancing, fireworks, and of course, massive amounts of alcohol. Things often get out of hand, and again, I was a bit worried about how well my dad would fit into all this. Perhaps I should have had him come during a more tranquilo week, I thought, but again he was insistent about getting the authentic Guatemalan experience.

In the end we all had a great time. I showed him all around my town, and was always proud when a little kid (or adult for that matter) shouted my name enthusiastically, “TRAAVEES, TRAAVEES!!”, as we passed. I introduced him to some of my friends and was surprised to see both how many people I know and also to hear some of the nice things people had to say about me to my dad—though I had to translate them for him, of course! I took him to eat Guatemalan food at the many food stands set up in the streets, and we watched crazy music and dancing in the park, including Convite, the uniquely Guatemalan tradition where men and women dress up in Halloween-like costumes—warriors, werewolves and other animals, even gigantic babies, and dance around in circles for hours on end. (After watching 15 minutes of Convite Dad described it as one of the most bizarre sights he'd ever seen, I'd have to agree with him.)

In the end the only thing we saw that was a bit scary was when we walked by the town hall and saw two guys, shirtless and tied up tightly to the building's columns, surrounded by what seemed like a mob of people watching them, as well as what seemed to be their wives and other family members distraught and trying to convince people to untie the men. I saw 2 police officers walk by, not making any attempt to do anything about the 2 men tied up in front of them. I later found out the story: the men had been tied up for shooting guns off into the air—they weren't trying to hurt anyone, but nonetheless upset people with their recklessness. They were untied and let go without harm after what seemed like not too long. It was the first time I've seen the much talked about 'traditional justice' practiced in rural Guatemalan towns, and hopefully the last.

After leaving the feria in my town (delayed when I forgot Eric's passport in my room and had to go back to get it from Quiche), we spent another 2 nights back on the lake in Jaibalito—by this point I really am practically a regular in town. We rented a beautiful cottage on the lake—again the same one Aaron and Aneta rented on their honeymoon, and enjoyed some nice meals, happy hours, as well as relaxation and down time.

The day before Eric and Dad's flight we headed back by boat then bus to Guatemala city, where we spent the night at the Grand Tikal Futura hotel, one of the fanciest in Guatemala (fortunately I was able to talk my way into getting the local Guatemalan rate, less than half of the rate for foreigners). We enjoyed lounging in the pool and the hotel's 3 jacuzzis for their last afternoon.

After a short nights sleep, we got up at 4 in the morning and said our goodbyes at the airport after a really nice trip together in Guatemala—a week for dad and a month for Eric. I headed back to the hotel, where I took advantage of the fancy room, cable TV, and pool access for a few more hours before heading home.

Last week was the first week back at classes in my schools, and I'm now trying to get back to my old 'normal' routine after both the excitement and stress of being a tour guide for the last 6 weeks. I had meetings in 2 of my schools to complete the planning activities we didn't have time to do earlier, and was again cautiously optimistic about the prospects for change this year. The schools and teachers seem to have a new enthusiasm and willingness to cooperate and take initiative. 2 schools even want to do infrastructure projects, beginning with the construction of new water faucets. We'll see what pans out—whether we can leverage this early energy into real progress or whether the enthusiasm will wane remains to be seen, but I feel I've done my part for the time being.

For my first visit to the schools I didn't have a whole lot planned—the goal is for teachers to begin teaching their own health lessons this year, so I don't want to create the expectation that I'm always going to come with activities. Nonetheless I did bring one surprise—my friend Mark wrote a parody of a Vicente Fernandez song with new lyrics related to things like drinking clean water and washing your hands with soap and water. I brought the song and sang it, with backup music from my MP3 player, for all the classes at my 3 schools. I even borrowed a big sombrero to make it look more authentic. In the end I wasn't sure if they appreciated it or thought I was crazy. As normal, probably a bit of both.