Thursday, December 8, 2011

Give my regards to Broadway…

I can’t believe it’s been almost 2 weeks already since my wonderful vacation home!  It was so amazing and rejuvenating to see all my friends and family after 15 months.  [Sorry if I was particularly socially awkward…I never had much going for me to begin with, but it became obvious that I now need to be re-socialized lol]  It was also a rather surreal experience walking around the familiar streets of Bayside, Manhattan, and Bethlehem after so long.  Most things hadn’t changed – the ridiculousness of Lehigh/Laf, the crowds in New York, my old office at the UN.  But then I found myself being bossed around my outrageous niece, admiring all the cool things my friends have been doing since graduation, and wrapping my head around the fact that my parents finally got CABLE TV, and it hit me how much time has passed (my life in Guatemala generally feels insulated from time, maybe due to the generally consistent weather?).  Even so, I’m glad I waited so long to make my first trip to the States, as I now have less than a year left here to enjoy, rather than being intimidated by more time.  And as much of a culture shock it was to be back in the developed world – excellent shower pressure! hot water from the tap! DRINKABLE water from the tap! food that won’t make you instantly sick! – I’m glad I got a dose of it now so that I don’t feel like a total alien when my 2 years are up.  Let’s just say that I appreciate the little things a lot more now!  And this stint home also proved baseless most of the irrational fears I’ve been developing here: the subway made me a little anxious, but Manhattan did not scare the shit out of me; I felt comfortable in footwear other than hiking shoes and Teva sandals; I didn’t embarrass myself in eating situations (it turns out that I only lose my table manners when presented with meat and only a spoon).  However, I stayed clear of any supermarkets, so I can’t say if my previous fear of them has gotten worse or not!

So now have I settled back into life in Guatemala?  By now, yes, but I didn’t have to for a while.  For starters, my awesome college friend Anais was unexpectedly in the country the weekend I got back, so I got to spend some quality time with her.  Then I had a really helpful training for several days in Chimaltenango on working with kids on school gardens, during which I stayed at my friend Alene’s house (thank you for putting up with me!).  From there I headed to Xela for 2 nights for a GAD meeting, before finally making it back to Cunen this past Saturday.  All of this while hauling a 50-pound suitcase around on chicken buses.  Disclaimer: the bus drivers and ayudantes (helpers) did most of the handling of said suitcase. But still, it was an extremely exhausting journey…look up Guatemala City g Antigua g Chimaltenango g Quetzaltenango g Santa Cruz del Quiché g Cunen (if you can find it) on a map sometime!  Needless to say, I was ecstatic (for the first and probably last time) to be back in site!  And of course to be back with my favorite sitemates, despite them trying to make me feel bad for leaving them… :) 

One week into being really back, things are finally back to normal.  I went to the market Sunday, hung out with my host family and friends in town.  Luckily work has been slow so far this week, since I was NOT ready to pick things up right away!  I began working with a new agricultural group yesterday; they’re really motivated, so I’m excited to work with them, but the community is FREEZING!  Yesterday was additionally my half birthday (left uncelebrated, sad times) and Quema del Diablo (“burning of the devil”), when everyone publicly burns their trash outside.  It’s fairly disgusting, but also serves as the unofficial start to my favorite part of December here: fireworks!  Lighting a sparkler with the embers of your burning trash is totally normal, right?  And today Cunen celebrated the Virgen de Concepción with one of our infamous convites – 20 costumed and (creepily) masked pairs dancing in the streets throughout the day to a live marimba band with a truckfull of speakers.  Apparently it’s tradition to eat tamales for breakfast for the occasion, so my adorable neighbor who always brings them to me (I don’t have the heart to tell her I don’t really like tamales) invited me over to eat with them this morning.  I felt so bad because I guess I didn’t say goodbye to them before I left for NY and they were asking all over town to make sure I was okay when they didn’t see me!

Finally, I somehow managed to not take any photos while home, but here are some highlights from my travels before and after: 

my sitemates and I as TOURISTS for Halloween

at the Sumpango kite festival

with Anais after running all around Antigua

Alene’s dogs that slept with me and Cara

I just uploaded the rest onto facebook :)

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

E12, HallowEEn, and Elections, oh my

Dear faithful readers,

I’m not sure why you find my life worthwhile to follow, but while I have deserted you for the last month, I at least have some new adventures to report :)         

October started as a fairly shitty month with the onset of Tropical Storm E12…a proper name would’ve been preferable so as to better aim curses at.  It started, as luck would have it, the day of my last activity with the schoolkids.  I should preface this by saying that it almost NEVER rains here in the morning; rainy season in Cunen is characterized by super hot mornings followed by torrential rain breaking the heat in the afternoon.  However, on this particular morning, the rain started as I was dragging my sitemates with me to Trigales for a treasure-hunt-type game that would test what/if the kids had learned from me.  Although I’d planned to have them running all over the school campus and had to instead make drastic changes to keep them from getting soaked and covered in mud, a fun time was had by all and it seemed like the kids did indeed pick up some stuff from my time with them!  As the school year here runs from mid-January to mid-October, I’ll start back up with them next year.

But back to the storm: the rain was bad enough that Peace Corps placed us under “Standfast” (no traveling) and I deftly avoided getting stuck in Uspantan (they had mudslides and no electricity…no thank you!).  My sitemates and I appropriated the situation and renamed it StandFEAST and I must’ve gained 10 pounds…it’s not like I ever need an excuse to eat large amounts of food, but not being able to leave Cunen was as good as any!  Anyway, the rain was practically nonstop and freezing for a week, so everyone was ecstatic when the sun finally came back out with a vengeance, effectively ending the rainy season.  Of course, then I forgot to water my plants for a while…

I did a whole lot of nothing after that (lovely way to celebrate my 1 YEAR IN SITE!  Just kidding, I had a fun lunch party with some friends and colleagues in town), but then miraculously my work picked up and I am BUSY!  Not only did my groups that I haven’t seen in ages apparently want me back, but I’m also helping another colleague do marketing stuff with her artisan groups, which I really enjoy.  However, four charlas in four days is quite tiring and seriously called for a four-day weekend!  Kate, Melissa, and I made our way down to Antigua on the Saturday before Halloween for, well, another eating fest lol.  I managed to blow about half of my November salary on food and drinks, but it was so worth it!  And Halloween was awesome: we brilliantly executed my idea of being…wait for it…TOURISTS!  Haha we had been covertly watching all the middle-aged tourists to best imitate their oddly safari-like look and it seriously paid off :)  The only downside was that we were like the only non-Guatemalans at the bar and it was totally lost on them – they were like, why are you crazy gringas dancing with fanny packs and headlamps??  The best part was the next day when we went to Sumpango – where I lived during training – for the kite festival and saw a tourist wearing Kate’s exact outfit from the night prior, completely legitimizing the costume!  But omg the kites were INCREDIBLE.  The biggest ones had to be 30 feet high and all are intricately detailed with pieces of tissue paper; no paint is used because it weighs them down.  Because yes, they fly, or at least the smaller ones (10ish feet) do, which was a cool part of the festivities.  This time of the year is generally kite-flying season all over the country, but they say in Sumpango that the giant kites communicate with the spirits in the cemetery on November 1st, All Saints’ Day or Day of the Dead.  Who knows if it’s true, but it’s a truly amazing tradition and I was glad to finally experience it, as I was forced to be in Cunen before the start of the holiday last year.

Oh and the Antigua trip was also a bit of a celebration: for those of you who don’t stalk me on Facebook (I don’t understand why not…), I found out about 2 weeks ago that I passed the Foreign Service Officer Test!  I seemed to have done pretty well on the multiple choice questions, though just barely passed the essay section.  Whatever, passing is passing!  I’m currently working on the second part of the process, which consists of 6 short personal narrative essays.  Luckily I’ve had enough (interesting?) life experiences, so I’ve got pretty decent stories.  Now I just need to edit them down to 1300 characters and perfection and submit them in a week!  I’m trying to be realistic because this is the most competitive part and really, my chances of moving onto the next step and being invited to the interviews are quite slim.  But as mumsy reminds me, I am fairly qualified, so we’ll see…wish me luck!

Speaking of international relations, Sunday was the second round of Guatemalan elections, this time to determine the president from the top 2 candidates.  I don’t think I mentioned this, but the candidates were far from ideal and stealing a popular phrase from Peruvian politics, the choice between the 2 was likened to choosing between HIV and cancer.  A significant amount of people I talked to decided not to vote because they were so disillusioned with the options.  But alas, por fin Otto Perez Molina of the Patriota iron fist party won.  I was pretty sure of the results when the fireworks began around 8pm…they were practically in my backyard since I live so close to the Cunen Patriota headquarters!  Today’s newspaper showed that although he carried none of the western part of the country with the exception of one department, he took Guatemala City and its surrounding department, giving him the edge necessary.  He’s for sure the less populist of the 2, but it’s anyone’s guess if he can provide the improved national security that he campaigned on.  Here’s a good article on the situation.

Ok that finally summarizes my life since my last update :)  I sadly don’t have any photos to share at the moment because my netbook is all virus’d up and won’t let me upload them, but I will be sure to get them out as soon as I can.  Now I just have to get through another busy week and then I’M HOME IN NEW YORK FOR 2 WEEKS!!!  Hit me up, amigos!

Sunday, October 9, 2011

$2/day Challenge

I was recently looking up development indicators for Guatemala and ran across the inevitable percentage of population below poverty line (over 50%, with a per capita GDP of about $5,000), which got me thinking about poverty lines.  The United States defines the global poverty line as earning less than $1.25/day, but more common are less than $2/day and less than $1/day to determine the poor and super poor.  This is an extremely small amount of money anywhere, especially if you have a large family to feed; luckily even the worst-paid Guatemalan laborers receive a slightly higher wage – men more than women.  Among college campuses, it is not uncommon for students to try putting themselves in the shoes of the world’s poor by consuming no more than $2/day for a week or so, aka the $2/day Challenge.  I always found this intriguing but impossible to do in the States, where you can’t buy anything substantive for $2 (even at 99-cent stores!).  What keeps coming up in my head, though, is that if we are talking about feeding one person in say Guatemala, where standards of living are much lower and freshly picked produce is much cheaper, $2/day (or about Q16/day) is entirely possible.  I earn about $10/day here and here’s a breakdown of what I generally buy in a week (prices and availability change seasonally, of course):

Broccoli: Q2.50/head (small)
Cauliflower: Q3.00/head (small)
Potatoes: Q1.50/lb.
Tomatoes: Q2.50/lb.
Onions: Q1.00/lb.
Güicoy: Q2.00/squash (small)
Peppers: Q1.00 each (small and possibly on the way out)
Corn: Q1.00/cob
Carrots: Q1.00 each
Apples: Q3.00/lb.
Bananas: Q0.50 each
Oranges: Q0.50 each
Pears: Q1.00 each
Strawberries: Q5.00/lb.
Black beans: Q3.00/lb. (raw)
Eggs: Q1.00 each
Tortillas: Q1.00/4
Xecas (kind of like sweet bagels): Q1.00 each

Now this list doesn’t include packaged foodstuffs like rice, pasta, oil, powdered milk, etc., but I’ve estimated that I spend about Q60/week on food.  That’s about Q8.60/day, or about $1.10/day.  Of course, if I went out to eat more, or bought meat rather than eating vegetarian, or ate the amount of tortillas that a Guatemalan eats, then my weekly food budget would obviously be higher.  Even so, excluding my occasional binges in Antigua or Panajachel, and my fancy packaged foods like peanut butter and chickpeas, I am daily succeeding at the $2/day challenge!

Speaking of Antigua, I was just there last week for my mid-service (has it already been almost a year since moving to Cunen??) medical appointments…and to take the Foreign Service Officer Test at the U.S. embassy in Guate!  It seems that I am physically very healthy, a little bit blinder but at least cavity-less, and now far more mentally stable after finishing the test!  Even with leaving Antigua at like 6am, Allie and I arrived a little late for the 8:30 test with another volunteer Damian, who couldn’t take the test because it turned out he’d never fully registered for it.  We finally started around 9am; I finished fairly quickly and had to wait like 45 minutes staring at a blank computer screen for Allie!  Well actually, I’d started doodling on the scrap paper they gave us…which they collected with our sign-in sheets…as I handed it in, I was like, “this is slightly embarrassing!”  I don’t know if it’s a good thing or not, but I found the test kind of anti-climactic and not all that challenging…I’ll find out at the end of the month if that means I knew all the answers or none of them!  Oh and waiting for Allie was worth it because a Foreign Service Officer she knows, who turned out to be very senior-ranking, took us out to a nice lunch in the embassy dining room (though not as nice as those at the U.N.!) and told us all about her 25+ years with the State Dept. – very cool.  And our after-party in Antigua was pretty freaking awesome :)

Hmmm since my last update, I gave a fun gender-themed capacitation to my Trigales group, cooked black bean burgers with the 6th-graders (they were supposed to be beet burgers, but you know, there were no beets…), trained the new ag trainees on GAD (so sad none of them are coming to Quiché!), and just a few days ago made a tire garden with mine and Melissa’s women’s group in Chiul.  I guess I’d never actually seen a tire garden made during training because let me tell you, it is no easy task!  In case you haven’t killed yourself cutting off most of one side of the tire, flipping it inside out will do the deed.  Plus I had a terrible cold and was probably mildly feverish (belated effects of my flu shot? Or maybe just post-test exhaustion finally catching up).  But we all survived and hopefully the radish seeds we planted will as well!  I’m thankfully feeling much better – three days in bed reading The Help and The Hunger Games, I highly recommend both, is a great remedy – but now I’m staving off the little girls who in the last few days have decided to frequently stop by my house.  I’m hoping they’ll figure out sooner than later that although the gringa has a nice house, she’s not actually all that fun to be around!

Ok I will cut my rambling off here.  I haven’t taken any new photos since last time, but will instead direct you to what looks to be an incredible film about Guatemala:

See you in a month!!!!!

Monday, September 19, 2011

The month of celebrations

With a heavy heart I must announce that September’s celebrations have come to an end.  (Not to worry – only about 2 weeks left until the next celebration, immediately following the Foreign Service exam!  SO SOON AHHH!)  While I’ve only worked about 1 day this month, I can’t say it hasn’t been fun :)

When I left you last, I was preparing to go to Xela and the Xocomil (sho-co-MEEL) waterpark for Melissa’s birthday…and it was awesome!  I’m fairly obsessed with my sitemates, so I knew it would be a great weekend, but add to the equation little-kid (splashing around on water slides all day) and grown-up fun (tremendous Indian food, burgers, drinks, dancing) and we couldn’t go wrong.  Xocomil’s about an hour outside of Xela, closer to the Pacific coast, so although it started raining about 10 minutes after arriving, it was still hot and we were already wet from the slides anyway!  Kate and Melissa’s friend Elizabeth and her boyfriend Alvaro were excellent company, especially as Alvaro used to go there as a kid and his reverted childlike excitement was highly contagious!  We were forced to end the day around 3pm due to a massive storm and headed back to Xela to celebrate Melissa’s birthday like adults lol.  And what would any trip to Xela be without a trip to Hiper Paiz/Wal-Mart for necessities?  It never ceases to amuse me how it remains a store almost exclusively for the rich here…

the girls and I ready to start the day at Xocomil

I did work a bit in the week that followed – making salads with the fifth- and sixth-graders at the Trigales school, as well as a meeting about a project Stephen and I want to do with our green-bean groups.  The plan is to apply for USAID/Peace Corps grants to pay for the process to certify 2 groups in Buenas Prácticas Agrícolas (Good Agricultural Practices).  One group is already almost ready to be certified (they were supposed to receive the certification last year but got kind of screwed over by a miscommunication between NGOs), but both need to brought up to speed with capacity trainings and the necessary safety/hygiene equipment.  We’re hoping to cover the costs of all that, plus the actual certification, with the help of the exporting company that already buys their green beans, and maybe also the muni and Save the Children.  Once the groups are certified, the company will pay them more money for the product; income generation is a main part of the PC Sustainable Agriculture project.  So now we need to start planning and filling out the grant application, but I’m not really sure what the timeline for that is…welcome to development work in Guatemala!

sixth-grade girls preparing a salad with freshly picked radishes

That Friday I also got a visit from Allie, who traveled for 2 days to hang out with me and avoid possible disturbances in her town during the September 11th elections.  Apparently out east where she is, celebrating cowboys shoot their guns in the air, causing problems when the bullets come down…  But Cunen was luckily super tranquilo the whole weekend and the best part was: the political parties were forced to stop advertising themselves for the weekend, so I finally got a rest from all the noise!  Wait, I take that back; Allie and I were woken up at 5am Monday by bombas and cohetes (kind of like fireworks, but without the nice accompanying lights) announcing that we’ll have a new mayor come January.  I was surprised he won, as many people in town described him as very egotistic, but I guess the other candidates weren’t as strong.  One of the losers was hand-selected by an aldea (village of Cunen) that wants to secede, but threats of rioting never took place.  And violence in nearby Nebaj and Sacapulas were localized enough that Allie was able to leave Tuesday morning without any problems.  Except maybe a rounder stomach from all the cooking and lazing around we did!

Wednesday was another fun celebration: a birthday party for Kate’s old host sister :)  Maria Isabel turned 7 and she is the cheekiest, cutest little girl.  I thought it was very sweet of her mother to invite me, since I don’t know the family as well as Kate or even Melissa, and you never turn down an invitation here!  She must have had a good time putting together the guest list, though: 3 gringas, an elderly Evangelical pastor and his wife, an ex-mayor who ran again this year and lost, and a bunch of little girls.  The situation was so ridiculous that I almost started inappropriately laughing during the pre-meal prayer!  But we ended up making good conversation and only lightly touching on the elephant in the room (the recent elections), so that by the time we left, the pastor told us what fun girls we were!  Ohhh I love the random experiences here :)

That was followed by Guatemala’s 190th Independence Day on Thursday!  All of the schools in town participated in the morning parade, which I got to see from my front door as it passed right by my house.  My host siblings and their friends and all the other random children I know were adorable, if not the most talented musicians, dancers, or gymnasts.  (Did I mention the “rhythmic gymnastics” event one of the secondary schools put on for their anniversary?  Let’s just say it was highly entertaining, and you know my standards!).  Unfortunately the customary afternoon games and pig-catching – I can’t even begin to describe how excited I was to see people try to catch a greased-up pig! – were canceled because the current mayor wasn’t re-elected and obviously needed to vent his frustration. 

Cunen in celebration

my host sister (with the whistle) and her friends dancing in the parade

And FINALLY, this past weekend was Noor’s birthday celebration at the lake.  We had a great time prepping in Pana for her party on Saturday night in another lake town, Santa Cruz La Laguna.  The hostel there is really chill and has really great food and didn’t mind when about 20 of us volunteers took over the lounge area for our own use!  It was a fantastic night with people I really like; I definitely wasn’t ready to leave.  But of course I had to and I got back to Cunen yesterday, laden down with more peanut butter :)

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The refrigerator-less life

So if you’ve seen photos of my house here, you may have noticed the lack of a fridge.  Nope, not even a mini-fridge.  In other words, my kitchen is less well-furnished than most college dorm rooms.  It also uses a lot less electricity…part of the reason why I haven’t invested in something I’d previous taken for granted is that I pay for electricity apart from my rent and I’m just cheap.  (In my defense, my Q800 monthly rent – a whopping $100 – is quite a drain on my meager paycheck!)  Fridges themselves are also kind of expensive.

But honestly, although my parents cannot comprehend why their spoiled child would choose to live without this marker of civilized life, I really just don't need it.  My host family had a refrigerator and I barely ever used it.  It would be really awesome to have a place to store cheese (I love the expensive “Swiss” cheese from Nebaj and maybe sometimes I find myself daydreaming about cream cheese…totally normal…), but that’s really the only thing I miss.  I drink powdered milk, cook small portions, go market shopping frequently enough and buy only what I need, and being 2 hours from the closest supermarket kind of limits bringing back perishable foods that might just perish on the journey home.  I’ve also learned quite a bit in my situation, such as:

Eggs do not need to be refrigerated.  I’m not sure how long they last, but all the stores have stacks of cartons of them, so I’m assuming a while.

Broccoli starts turning an…interesting…yellow after being left at room temperature for more than a couple of days.

Once opened, homemade jam will last 1-2 weeks outside of a fridge before the inevitable mold starts to grow.

Unrefrigerated left-overs must be re-cooked over high heat for 3-4 minutes.  If not, you run the risk of allowing the bacteria that naturally grows on cooked foods (but not on unnaturally chilled foods) to do some funky things to your stomach.  I didn’t know this at first and just thought my newfound addiction to lentils was taking its toll on my body; my health-worker sitemates soon clarified the issue lol.  Luckily I don’t cook meat, so I think I’m safe from food poisoning.  Even so, the re-heating thing is kind of a bitch because you unwillingly end up frying your left-overs.  That’s fine for say, tonight’s fried rice that could potentially benefit from some more frying to be eaten for lunch tomorrow.  Pasta, however, is a very different story!

Anyway, I’m not complaining; it’s just something I’ve been thinking about lately and I figured life without a refrigerator was probably a foreign concept (haha!) to most of you.  My sitemate Melissa lives 2 blocks away from me and I could always use her fridge.  And I’ve been told that placing a smaller clay pot within a larger one, filling the space between them with sand, and always keeping the sand wet serves the same role of keeping food chilled.  I still have to try that one out and then maybe I can start stocking up on cream cheese!

I clearly don’t have much going on right now if this is the most pressing topic for a life update lol.  (Then again, food has always been a central theme in my mind.)  Work’s been its usual off and on…I actually had a surprisingly good turnout at a meeting yesterday about how to do a market study, I planted an herb garden with a women’s group last week, and tomorrow I’ll be making cucumber salad with my school group.  I may soon have a new women’s group to do cooking classes/demonstrations with, and Stephen and I are starting to plan potential SPA (Small Project Assistance? USAID-funded) projects with our green-bean growing groups.  And really, the non-busy days are also pretty great for Foreign Service studying – I’m all registered to take the test in Guate on October 4th!  My social life has been far more fun: the weekend at the lake with my sitemates was such a fantastic time (plus I got to restock my coffers of American foodstuffs!) and the weekend after was equally great with a classy jazz benefit concert in Antigua with my friend Allie, where we were hanging out for a GAD meeting :)  Now I just need to get through the rest of the week and we’re off to Xela for the weekend, to celebrate Melissa’s birthday in style at the famed Xocomil waterpark! (probably in the rain, but we’ll already be wet, right?)

I’m going to forgo photos this time as all my new ones are on facebook, and instead leave you to ponder what your life would be like without a refrigerator.  Could you do it??  Haha please don’t think too hard about it; you’ll probably never be in my situation!

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

12 months down, 15 more to go!

Wow, tomorrow marks one entire year of being in Guatemala and today is the very first day here for the new batch of ag trainees.  (Just 10 food security newbies, no marketing or municipal development, as those programs were deemed unnecessary…just kidding…kind of lol.)  Looking back to when I was in their current position seems like both yesterday and a million years ago.  It makes me question how much I’ve accomplished in the last year (a fairly trivial amount) and how much I’ve learned (quite a bit).  I’m about to get all self-introspective, so you can stop reading here if you’d like!

First of all, I’d be lying if I say I haven’t changed at all.  I wouldn’t say it’s due to living in tough developing-country conditions, because honestly my greatest hardship is how freaking far I live from everything.  Which maybe is part of it; living in a somewhat isolated small town 2 hours away from the closest supermarket will get you used to a slower and simpler way of life.  But really, I think I’m now just a more mature person.  No worries, I’m still the same sarcastic, opinionated, attention-seeking girl who’ll laugh at the drop of a hat!  But I’m also more realistic and slightly less idealistic, more serious about life rather than treating it as a continuous joke, and most importantly, financially independent for the first time in my life.  Granted, it’s on less than $400 a month so I’m not exactly saving up for the future, but it’s a step towards adulthood…that dreaded word!  I also just have an incredible amount of time to sit around and ponder/over-analyze my life, which should be fairly obvious in the rest of this update lol.

Anyway, moving on: Guatemalans.  I don’t know if I’ll ever fully understand them, and part of that, maybe most of it, is the language barrier, be it my still limited Spanish or nonexistent K’iche.  I have some very good Guatemalan friends – in town, host family, co-workers – who I continue to learn so much from.  Even so, I remained surprised by how people I don’t know receive me, varying between acceptance and dismissal, delighted with me and judgmental of me (I probably deserve the latter!).  It’s always interesting to see which one I will get and from whom.  Men are so different from women, indigenous people from ladinos (non-indigenous), younger from older, rural-dwellers from urban-dwellers, villagers from people from the center of town.  Each exchange is instructive and meaningful, and I think that the more people who know me, the better.  I may never be fully integrated into the community (how could I be?  It’s a small town, but not that small), but I’m convinced that individual relationships are what count.  And so I rejoice with every conversation on the street, every lunch or party invitation, every gifted tayuyo (tortilla stuffed with refried beans, so good!), handful of peaches or apples, or popsicle that may or may not later give me intestinal problems!

Guatemalan politics are equally as confusing…the presidential elections are coming up on September 11th and I literally cannot wait.  There is a huge multitude of political parties and each one of them promotes themselves with so much propaganda it’s ridiculous.  I really should take photos of all the painted rocks on the sides of the highways and the posters in town, some of which are really entertaining!  My absolute LEAST favorite part are the political songs continuously blasted through town by megaphones propped up on pick-up trucks; I live close to the municipal headquarters of 2 of the major parties, so I luckily get the full blast of it.  I would really love to know if politicians in any other country also change the words to pop, reggaeton, and marimba songs, and what sounds like funeral dirges.  I’m also extremely curious about whether or not copyright laws were considered when using the songs; probably not, given the abundance of bootleg CDs and DVDs and the freely painted logos and Disney characters painted on walls everywhere!  Anyway, I’m super curious to see who becomes the next president – the top candidates are a former general responsible for much of the civil war violence, a former Protestant preacher, and until recently, the current president’s ex-wife…a president cannot run for re-election, but neither can a family member run in the following race.  To “solve” the problem, they got a divorce earlier this year.  However, it turns out that they would’ve had to be divorced for 4 years so not only is she barred from running, 4 years from now she won’t have to be divorced to run.  But by then she’ll probably have lost the steam from her controversial, but definitely vote-amounting, state social program Mi Familia Progresa (My Family Progresses).  Ohhh well, who knows what will happen?  I just hope no riots break out in town.

Hmmm what else?  I’ve discovered many foods here that I’d never even considered in the States – lentils, cauliflower, snow peas.  Local güicoyes are an excellent substitute for zucchini and eggplant, two of my favorite veggies and which are extremely hard to find here.  Certain fruits, like pineapple and pears, are just so much tastier here, right off the tree.  I doubt market Sundays will ever become an uneventful experience for me, but it is very easy to get used to how cheap fresh produce is here – Q1 for a pound of onions, Q3 for an expensive bag of tomatoes, Q2 for a head of broccoli, all this with an exchange rate of about $1=Q7.75!  And I have fallen in love with comida típica (typical foods) – rellenitos (fried plantains stuffed with refried beans and topped with sugar), chiles rellenos (as best as I can describe, these are a fried pancake of shredded chicken and veggies, with a hot pepper), papusas (really Salvadorian – tortillas stuffed with gooey cheese), chuchitos and tamalitos (tortilla dough stuffed with pork or beans)…yummm :)

And finally, work.  I don’t really know where I stand on that subject.  The Save the Children evaluations are coming up at the end of the month, so I guess we’ll see in which areas we’ll continue and in which we won’t.  Either way, I want to get so much more accomplished in the next 15 months here.  The question, of course, is how!  There’s talk of legalizing some of our groups, getting them various certifications that demand higher prices for products, finding buyers and fixed markets for those that still lack them.  I hope I can play a role in these.  And as exhausting as they can be, I do love working with the kids and their school garden :)  This morning the 4th-graders and I harvested their Swiss chard and cooked it up for a nutritious snack…even though I’d never even previously touched Swiss chard!  A good recipe and a smart and hard-working group of kids helped (we all know I have no idea how to build a fire to cook over!) and a good time was had by all!  Also work-wise-ish is my new additional position on the GAD (Gender and Development) committee as the Sustainable Ag Project Representative…it was kind of by default because my boss is convinced that only 1 person per project can be on the committee and therefore wouldn’t let anyone else run, but I’m still excited!

Okay, I think that’s definitely enough rambling and reflection for now!  To celebrate my 1-year anniversary in Guatemala, my sitemates and I are going to Lake Atitlán, my favorite place to let loose :)  It will also end my longest stretch of time spent continuously in Cunen…while I may have given off the impression in my last update that I was depressed, I’m really just kind of bored!  And it’s really not that bad – 2 weekends ago I attended a wedding lunch and a lunch and party (on the same day…) for my host brother’s 4th birthday, which was way fun and awesome how I was included as part of the family.  And this past weekend I finally constructed a mini garden and proper compost pile in my backyard, killing my body and somehow managing to split my sturdy hoe pole in two…clearly I was not made for swinging a hoe around.  I have nothing but major respect for my dad, who does that shit every summer and is always rewarded with a great harvest.  I’m just praying my eggplant, squash, and pepper seeds actually germinate and grow and that my sprouting herb garden matures into usable plants!

Monday, July 25, 2011

Progress, in installments

I’ve been reading about the terrible heat wave making its way across the States and all I can say is, I’m sorry!  When I got here last August at the tail-end of Guatemala’s winter/rainy season, I was miserable and cold.  However, whether due to the same climate change forces the US is currently experiencing, or because the supposed resurgence of summer during the month of July, the weather here has been pretty perfect :)  Hot days, cool nights, and no sudden rain storms plaguing my afternoon community visits.  The clouds forming outside as I type might bring some relief to the farmers, though!  I’m curious (read: apprehensive) to see how August progresses and if the roads become impassable or not.

But this post is about progress, and more specifically how it comes in spurts.  And how in between those spurts, it’s very easy to forget about any progress made.  For example, I was so bored on Thursday that I remained shut up in my house like a hermit for 48 hours, until Saturday evening.  During those mildly suicidal yet productive 2 days, I neither dwelled on the successes of the previous week or 2 nor could I revive myself enough to predict how fun the end of my self-imposed state of recluse would be.  As my mood swing back to joy principally involved the return of sitemates and other volunteers passing through, I am further convinced that I could not have done this experience alone.  Also that I am a great self-entertainer but ultimately a terrible hermit!

I’ve diverged again – as I mentioned, the last week or 2 have actually been fairly successful.  Work-wise, Save the Children hired a new marketing specialist, Enrique, to work with us.  I was extremely skeptical at first because Enrique became our new Supervisor while Allan, the previous unhelpful Supervisor and whose daily work is a complete mystery to me, was promoted to Coordinator.  I further could not comprehend why Save was hiring new people when it a) supposedly has no money and b) is looking to end all projects northern Quiché by next June (I’m here until October…).  I have to say, though, after one particularly productive brainstorming (lluvia de ideas!) meeting, I am impressed with Enrique and his leadership abilities.  While Allan (though a nice guy) never inspired anything in anyone, Enrique came up with a solid 6-month plan and was very open to altering and adding on to it, especially to more actively include Stephen and I.  With a sidestep back to pessimism, that was the first installment; follow-up on the plan has been lacking.  Returning to my natural optimism: I also had a bunch of successful capacitations, teaching about responsible micro-lending, nutrition, and a manure “tea” organic fertilizer :)

Progress with my new neighbors has come haltingly as well.  On the one hand, my direct neighbors across the street persist in their blank stares/dirty looks whenever I greet them.  I for the life of me cannot understand why, considering I am far less threatening than other people actually from town, but I guess being a gringa and renting a nice house causes jealousy/envy/resentment.  Oh well.  On the other hand, a woman a few houses down has taken a particular liking to me and brought me over a tamal yesterday evening :)  She was also overjoyed that it wasn’t one of us gringuitas (little white girls lol) that died in a recent car accident in town – the victim was a woman from out of town, who wore pants and had light hair – it was actually really sweet!  Oh and I also forgot to mention that I had my old host family over for lunch last weekend, which was really nice; I always liked the family a lot and I think it’s easier to appreciate them now that I’m not living under their somewhat crowded roof!

To end this installment (!), I do not have any new photos to post, but I do have some exciting news: my plane tickets are booked to go home from November 13th-26th!!!  It’s funny how I was originally never planning on returning to the States during my 2 years and now I CANNOT WAIT!  Thanksgiving, Lehigh/Laf, friends, family, food, stainless/hole-less/form-fitting clothes…mmmmm :)

PS – Felicidades to all gay couples now legally allowed to marry in New York!!!

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Monthly update…

So as the title suggests, this may be turning into a monthly update instead of something more frequently.  But that’s ok, as my life isn’t all that interesting and I know you all can only take me once a month, right? ;)

I do have rather excellent news: I am all moved-in into my new house!!  Apparently my landlord and I had some miscommunication (welcome to my life…) and he built a whole fence, instead of part one that could be extended.  SO once that was finally finished, I snapped some photos, sent them to Peace Corps, and got the approval to move in!  The OK came fairly simultaneously with the rest of the furniture I’d ordered from a carpenter in Uspantan, about an hour away.  THAT was kind of a hassle; of course it was raining and since the banks were closed and the ATM was out of service, we convinced the poor uncomprehending guy to take American dollars at the current exchange rate.  We found out later that Guatemalans can only exchange US$ if they have an account at the bank, so luckily my friend Stephen who lives in Uspantan was able to help the guy out lol, since the rule doesn’t apply to Americans.  Anyway, the moral of the story is that I’m living in a wonderful (almost) fully furnished house!  I need some more chairs, and mirrors, and pans, and a table, and I’m sure other things, like gardening tools and curtains, but I’m set for now :)

my furnished kitchen:

my furnished bedroom:

my giant pila and part of the backyard:

Hmmm since I last wrote, I turned 23.  That was super fun celebrating in Panajachel and Antigua.  I was just in Antigua again last week for July 4th.  We had a pretty interesting all-volunteer conference last Friday on hot volunteer topics and then a hopping party the next day – the 2nd not the 4th, as a Saturday was unaccountably deemed more appropriate.  I mentioned last time that I’m now on the Gender and Development (GAD) committee and my main job is running the 4th of July raffle and selling merchandise during the conference and party…HUGE SUCCESS!  We ended up soliciting 96 prizes and raised over Q7,000 between ticket and merch sales, almost $1,000!  The only downside was a conflict between GAD and VAC (the Volunteer Advisory Committee, who runs weekend activities) during the raffle drawings, but hopefully there won’t be any lasting issues on that front.  And credit must be given to them for a fun party and a great after-dance-party :)  A few friends and I decided to stay in Antigua for a few more days, the highlight of which was a redneck party at Mono Loco, the American bar/restaurant in town, on the actual holiday :)  As usual, I spent far too much of my meager monthly allowance on excellent food and drink (and less excellent hostels), so I’m a little broke for the second month in a row…oh well, at least I’ve got everything I need!  Including internet and a working cell phone…it turns out that losing 2 cell phones in a 5-day period isn’t as hard as you’d imagine, who knew?

my sitemates and I at the party:

The Antigua trip was also inadvertently a despedida for 1, probably 2, friends who have decided to leave early.  Or “early terminate” in PC-speak; how awful is that?  Anyway, they’ve both been very unhappy with their work situations (aka no work) and are out in the lonely eastern part of the country, where there are very few volunteers.  They will both be greatly missed and I hope things work out better for them in the States.

Of course it’s extremely hard not to question my own situation here in light of their decision.  I mean, work is…work.  It’s not especially good, but I guess it’s not terrible either.  And I do have 2 amazing sitemates and a lot of solid relationships, both with Americans and Guatemalans.  I don’t plan on going home early, but it has made me think a lot about if I actually like it here or not.  On the whole, I do.  Life can just be super difficult…my friend Carolyn does a great job of expressing our collective frustrations here.  So while I do kind of look forward to the end of my service here, I still have quite a bit of time left that I want to make the best of.  Although who wouldn’t look forward to October 2012 plans of traveling through Latin America for a month or 2?  (Positions for travel buddies are still open!)  I’m also starting to plan for the future by studying for the Foreign Service Officer Test in October of this year!  So much for photojournalism ;)

Friday, June 3, 2011

Busier Life, New House, 23rd Year…what??

I might officially suck at writing a blog.  At least at updating it anyway.  The thing is, as unlikely as it might seem, not much excitement happens here!  I think I’m finally at the point where, although I continue to count monthly anniversaries of being here, I’m pretty settled and life here is normal.  Not New-York- or really America-at-large-normal, of course, but I’m no longer shocked by almost everything.

Except cows.  I will never get the image out of my mind of a cow drinking out of a pila…within Cunen’s “urban” limits!  I still can’t believe I didn’t have my camera for that.  Another time we saw a cow scratching its head with its hind leg, like a dog.  I didn’t even know cows had that much mobility!  Animals here in general fascinate me: pigs on leashes, bulls roaming down the town’s main street, turkeys and chickens running about, escaped dogs eating baby chicks, rooftop dogs…I’m always reminded of the oddity of such everyday sightings when people come to visit.  Melissa’s mom taking photos of everything kind of weird in Cunen yesterday brought this to mind!

But anyway, back to non-ramblings.  Life is finally getting busier and more productive!  I finally met the 3rd farmer’s group assigned to me, so capacity trainings with them will start shortly, and things with the other 2 groups have been moving along.  I think I convinced the Trigales group to completely reorganize because even though they’re a legal association, they do not act like one.  Namely, each member sells their crop individually to a coyote/intermediary, rather than combining their crops to take advantage of higher quantities and collective bargaining.  We’ll see what happens over the next year, I guess.  In that same community I’ve been working with 4th-6th graders – one hundred and freaking fifteen of them! – on a school garden project.  So far it’s been fun, exhausting, and productive :)  We cleaned and fixed up the land and planted, and the seeds (most of which I got for free from Semilla Nueva!) are starting to sprout.  The soil isn’t the greatest, but in 2 weeks we’re starting a compost bin, at least for next year.  And although I can’t stand the cold that it’s bringing, luckily the rainy season has more or less officially started (and the rain is still nice and light), so there’s no pressing need for irrigation :)

Another new development is that I’m now on the volunteers’ Gander and Development (GAD) committee, as the Communications and Accounts Manager…aka the fundraising and marketing person, but we’re not allowed to say marketing lol.  So my big objective for the next month is getting business to donate stuff for our raffle at the annual 4th of July party (celebrated on the 2nd…) and getting volunteers to buy tickets!  Being part of GAD also finally brought me to Xela (SHAY-la), Guatemala’s second-largest city, for the first time.  While I was lost almost the entire time I was there, it was a really fun weekend!  A productive GAD meeting, spending Q600 on (mostly) needed things at Hiper Pais/Wal-Mart (couscous! Nature Valley bars! pretzels! new undergarments!), getting the free seeds, and a crazy welcome party :)

My most exciting and also most frustrating news is my new house!  The Muni program’s APCD came to Cunen last Thursday and approved my adorable, fancy new space!!  It did come with a caveat, though: it has a street entrance that leads to my backyard that needs to be blocked off.  I finally met with my landlord last night and we decided that he would build a little fence on that side of the backyard, which will be extended poco a poco (little by little) in the future, when both of us have more money.  So, waiting for that and for the furniture I ordered last weekend that’s taking AGES to come, my move-in date has been pushed back until not this weekend but the next, when I get back from In-Service Training.  Which just happens to fall during my birthday, so I conveniently get to celebrate in Antigua!

the front of my new house

what will be my bedroom with its fancy tiles and chandelier!

While I hate being projected further into my 20’s, turning another year older will hopefully give me some more credibility (street cred? lol) in my work here.  It’s not uncommon for professionals to be pretty young, as being a teacher is very common and they only have to complete 1 year of study after high school for their degree, but I think a lot of people have trouble taking me seriously.  Oh well, time will tell.  In the meantime, in addition to celebrating on my actual birthday in Antigua, this weekend we’re off to Panajachel for another welcome party that’s doubling as a joint birthday party for Carolyn, Justin, and I…let the fun begin!

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

I want to go back on vacation!

Happy Guatemalan Mother’s Day!

I just got back from a week and a half vacation touring the Oriente (eastern part of the country) with Kevin, and returning to real life is not all it’s cracked up to be.  Nah, just kidding, it’s great to be back :)  AND I celebrated 6 months in site on the 30th! (while out of site…lol)  It’s so weird to think that I’m ¼ of the way done.

But back to vacation – Kevin’s flight was seriously delayed, so our trip was a little bit too, but we finally made it to the ruins at Tikal (the flight there was so strange…I’m so not used to modern technology lol) and they were AWESOME.  That might have been my favorite part of the trip, I think mostly because I didn’t have very many expectations for it.  But we also had a fantastic guide and I LOVED that you could walk all over the temples and pyramids – so much cooler than other ruins I’ve been to!  We stayed at the lovely Hotel Gringo Perdido (very true in this case!) in El Remate, Petén, a small town on a really nice lake outside of the Tikal park.  Then came a 3-hour bus trip to Rio Dulce, Izabal, where we spent a couple of days lounging on the water, kayaking to Guatemala’s only castle (the fail Castillo de San Felipe), and me getting serious amounts of painful water in my ears after jumping like 15 feet into the water!  Next was the boat ride to Livingston, land of the Garifunas, black Caribs.  While it was fun drinking coco locos (coconuts filled with rum yumm) and walking along the beach to the Seven Alters waterfalls and bar-hopping on the way back, that was probably our least favorite part of the trip.  It’s kind of a sketchy place and our hotel/hostel didn’t have hot water.

I should mention that it had been raining sporadically throughout the trip, but it worked out great by vivifying all the places we were going to see.  HOWEVER, we got seriously caught in the rain on our open boat leaving Livingston, going back to Rio Dulce.  After drying off a bit, I hiked back to our hotel there, where I’d left my brand new Nalgene bottle and all the staff thought I was crazy…oh well, that’s neither the first nor last time someone will think that!  I figured that would fully exhaust me for our 5-hour bus ride to Lanquin, Alta Verapaz, but somehow the bumps of the unpaved road kept me awake the whole time… Our grumpy spirits were slightly revived by lots of food and happy hour at the El Retiro bar.  The whole place reminded me a lot of camp, with bungalows spread out across the property and one collective bathroom…which I got to know VERY well over that night with a sudden bought of diarrhea lol.  I didn’t want to miss our tour of Semuc Champey the next day, so I took 3 immodium and Kevin’s antibiotics.  Well, the caves and waterfalls at Semuc Champey were incredibly worth it, but oh man was I backed up over the next 2 days!  My stomach was rumbling all 8 hours to Antigua the next day and although we had plans to go all out partying our last night, after a delicious dinner at Hector’s Place, one of my favorite Antigua restaurants, I was in so much pain that we had to go straight back to the hotel!

It was a sad goodbye when Kevin left on Saturday, but he made it safely back to the States and I made it back to Cunen in time to shower and head back out to Uspantan for their feria.  It was a fun night, but I totally think our feria was better, even though their town is bigger.  AND they did not have Los Conejos!

So now I’m back to real life and actually quite busy working this week.  Plus there have been some developments on securing my own place to move into, so I’m working on that too :)

Here are some photos from the trip (on my brand new camera since I somehow lost my old one): 

the Plaza Mayor in Tikal

Rio Dulce with the Castillo in the background

Kevin getting ready to jump off one of the Seven Alters

Kevin and I at Semuc Champey after an intense hike to the look-out point

Many more photos to come on facebook!

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Happy Eastover!

Semana Santa (Holy Week) has officially come and gone, and despite the major Jew that I am, I’m pretty upset about it.  I mean, what other holiday closes down your office for a week, forces you to eat insane amounts of sweet breads (MAJOR Jew that I am, during Passover…), stages a reenactment of Jesus’ last hours, and has the ingenious tradition of making colorful alfombras (carpets) out of sawdust?  Granted, transportation all but shut down by the end of the week, super hot days were punctuated by afternoon thunderstorms (oh hello, early rainy season!), and “Jews” with noise-makers were busily running around town searching for the hiding Jesus, but really, those are relatively normal occurrences in Guatemala!

To start the week off right was our unofficial welcome party in Nebaj for the 3 new volunteers in El Quiché; though 1 is not actually in our department and the other 2 are situated in Nebaj anyway, minor details… It was a great weekend and the highlight was discovering a pretty nice pool with a water slide!  Although I neglected to bring/wear a bathing suit, I somehow found myself in the pool, courtesy of Daniel :)  And the excitement continued on Sunday: not only did I finally buy some Acul “Swiss” cheese (who knew you didn’t have to hike 3 hours to find it?), but back in Cunen I potentially found a house to move in to!  Details to come.

The rest of the week probably confirmed my growing reputation as a paseadora.  Once I discovered my office was closed on Monday, Wilson, Melissa, and I spent the afternoon at Cunen’s famous grutas.  Supposedly they were much better before sustaining damage from the 30-year civil war and/or last year’s Hurricane Agatha, depending on who you talk to, but it’s still a nice river with some cool caves.  Tuesday I went to check out Noor’s new site (Chiché, Quiché…I’m a little jealous!) and to do some last-minute shopping for…Wednesday’s Passover party!  While I made 12 friends from across El Quiché come and celebrate one of my favorite holidays, I did them wrong: neither matzo nor matzo meal could be found anywhere in Guatemala, so we used saltine crackers as a substitute.  However, I did feed them choroset, veggie kugel, and saltine/matzo ball soup, plus supplied Maneshewitz wine to offset the non-kosher stuff, so the idea was there :)

Holy Thursday was fun with lunch with my extended host family and then the beginning of the tragedia, the reenactment of Jesus’ last hours.  Let’s just say I can take The Passion of Christ off my Netflix queue ;)  Anyway, they beat the poor Guatemalan Jesus up pretty badly (not all of it was play) and disappeared to “tie him up” for the night.  It was pretty funny because I was with Wilson and when I asked him if they were coming back, he called his friend that was participating to find out…but as his part was over, he’d gone to the cantina for the rest of the night!

Last but not least came Good Friday, which is the biggest deal here.  We woke up pretty early to help Jenny’s family make their traditional alfombra before the procession started.  While the actual decorating and having my hands dyed red-purple were a lot of fun, even better was Jenny’s cousin Ulmari hitting on Kate’s friend Tom, who’s here visiting for a month!  (Side note: in order to avoid more than the normal amount of gossip, Tom is being introduced at Kate’s cousin.  This has provoked some extraordinarily entertaining responses, as Kate is a small white girl and Tom is a big black guy.)  After the procession hit Jenny’s house and walked over our carpet, we followed it around for the rest of the morning until it made its way to Cunen’s calvario and Jesus (the statue, not the actor) was put back to rest (and then later paraded back to the Catholic church in the afternoon).  We had a very nice lunch with Jenny’s family afterwards, with more of Tom being hilariously uncomfortable and me having to explain that Jews don’t just run around in the streets with noise-makers looking for Jesus lol.

Finally, Guatemalans barely acknowledge Easter, but we had a really nice dinner in Uspantan.  With BAKED chicken!  OMG I was drooling; we only ever eat boiled chicken here!  And then we had to hitch a ride back to Cunen in the back of a pick-up truck, potentially the cause of my current bout of gripe.

Now I actually have a fairly busy half-week of work until vacation with Kevin starting Thursday!  Oh, and I learned today that there has been a fish swimming in my family’s pila for the past few days.  I don’t remember if I’ve mentioned this, but every family has a pila and it’s kind of like a gigantic sink where you store the water to wash clothes, dishes, teeth, sometimes small children, etc.  And now mine has a fish excreting in it and they think it’s totally normal.

Okay, this life update has gone on way too long, so here are some related photos as always:

Jenny, Melissa, Tom, Wilson, and I with our finished alfombra

a bloody Jesus getting led to his cross by Romans and “Jews”

the procession walking over a much nicer carpet than ours

my family’s pila (sin pescadito)