Wednesday, December 5, 2012

A selection of photos for those who don't stalk me on Facebook

sex education workshop with the Paz Joven youth group

Mayan candle ceremony at the first of three cocktail parties associated with the Antigua artisan fair
full circle: hike to the Nebaj cheese farm

...and the surprise we found there eeee!

El Quiche bus terminal

"Zumba" in Cunen!

Inauguration Day for the onion warehouse

cutting the ribbon

me and the association ladies...I'd always thought of them as such big, strong women because of all the struggles they endure, but they're so tiny!

the association and their new warehouse

with the teachers in Los Trigales after they threw me the most wonderful goodbye party!

my ageless xeca neighbors

last morning in Cunen

I. Miss. This.

view of the volcano in Antigua

romantic evening with Stephen :)

ringing the bell officially ending my service

Day 1 of El Mirador hike

view of El Mirador in the distance (goal for Day 2)

beautiful nature

we made it!

our group at the ruins

the top of La Danta...the largest structure in the Mayan world

heading back

last night in Guate

all my luggage ready to go!

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Returned Peace Corps Volunteer

So…I’m home!  I’m sure you’re all very confused and thinking, “but Nicole, you said you were planning to travel forever and never come home?”  While that was indeed the general plan, I was extremely busy and stressed up until my Close of Service date on October 17th (which is why I haven’t written an update in so long and I’m now overwhelmed getting ready to write this).  Throw an infected cyst into the mix and I kind of broke down and decided to go back to New York for a while.  The new plan is to get my grad school applications in (I only had time to put together my Fulbright application while in Guatemala) and then do the Central American adventure I had planned.  Or maybe Asia instead?  That is to be determined when I can get my head around traveling again.

I’m not really sure where I left off in the last update.  My last two months of service were kind of a whirlwind.  I went hiking a few times in Nebaj.  I helped out with sex education workshops with the Paz Joven youth (young adult) group in Cunén (they gave me a bunch of pretty sweet t-shirts).  I volunteered as a translator for an artisan fair in Antigua hosted by Agexport, the national exporting association; we didn’t work very hard but made lots of new friends and went to many fancy cocktail parties!  While there, I saw a volcano exploding.  I enjoyed the festivities of my third Independence Day in Guatemala.  I taught a bunch of kids some dances in preparation for that day.  My dream came true when I got to ride on top of a micro because there were no seats inside.  I bought some traditional clothing.  I helped give sensitivity trainings to Peace Corps staff.  I evaluated the schoolchildren on what they’d learned from me.  I facilitated the construction of a warehouse for storing onions.

That last one was pretty awesome, though definitely the biggest stressor.  Getting things done in Guatemala takes a lot of time and an immeasurable amount of patience.  Construction began late and was behind schedule the entire time.  Most of the materials were delivered on time, but the cinder clock guy was missing for a while and then he ended up not being able to complete the whole order.  Then we needed more things that we hadn’t originally budgeted for, like double the amount of cement.  True to form, I was running around like a crazy woman, this time in a country where no one is ever in enough of a rush to run anywhere.  But I am very happy to say that it all worked out, more or less.  We inaugurated the warehouse on one of my last days in Cunén and the only thing they had left to do was to finish putting up the shelving units.  And it was a great inauguration!  Lots of speeches, food, and dancing :)  I had shown up wearing a traditional Cunén huipil (blouse) and dress pants; the ladies all looked at the huipil admiringly (it is beautiful) and the pants disapprovingly and quickly whisked me away to dress me in a corte (traditional skirt), which they generously gifted to me.  (I didn’t buy a corte on my own because I didn’t think I would ever wear it again, but the one they gave me is made of a wonderful wool that could be very useful for the New York winter!)  The highlight of the afternoon may have been the photo shoot of me and every person in attendance individually, during which my smile rapidly faltered lol.  At the end of the party it was very difficult to say goodbye to everyone.

There were a lot of goodbyes all around.  I had the artisan groups, the other farmers groups, and the schools (the kids in Los Trigales bought me a bunch of adorable presents).  Host family, extended host family, Zumba ladies, friends, neighbors.  I was surprised how many people cried (though not me because I am emotionally stunted).  Though I did surprise myself by freely handing out my American phone number.  We’ll see who actually cares enough to buy saldo to call me, but I will welcome those calls.  As ready as I was to leave Guatemala, I was not willing to leave it all behind. 

And how can I?  Two+ years there have affected and changed me in so many ways.  Physically, my legs are stronger from hiking, my stomach and lungs weaker from everything polluted that I ate and inhaled, I have innumerable scars, I have a tattoo.  I became one with nature…well, maybe not, but I actually experienced nature and liked it!  I’ve grown up a lot in the way that seeing so much poverty and suffering will do to you.  I’ve become much more independent and confident, fulfilling many personal goals.  (It’s funny; I used to hate doing adult things by myself, like going to the doctor or jury duty.  I mentioned that recently to a friend and said that I still hated doing that.  And then I realized what I’d done over the last 2 years and just shook my head.)  I’ve also made lasting friendships and conquered Spanish (well, almost – advanced medium!).  Please keep this all in mind when you see me in person and I’m super awkward and weird because I don’t know how to translate all that to life in the U.S.

Anyway, soul-searching aside, after COSing together on October 17th (and after a fancy pit stop in Guatemala City), Stephen and I headed to the jungles of Peten for a week of hiking.  I’m not sure that I was ready for what I’d signed up for.  Leaving from Carmelita, the last village on the edge of the forest, we walked about 100 kilometers over 2 days to reach the archaeological site El Mirador (“the lookout,” so named because it is home to La Danta, the Mayan world’s largest pyramid).  We were accompanied by a lovely German couple and an Italian guy, which astronomically decreased the chances of Stephen and I killing each other!  The jungle was beautiful and the site very cool, though largely uncovered, unlike other Guatemalan ruins like Tikal.  I was disappointed that we only had one day to explore the site, considering that the other 4 days of walking were so exhausting.  Let’s just say that by the end, covered in blisters and bites from all kinds of insects, I was very happy to be back in civilization!

Now I find myself back in FREEZING New York City.  Stephen got me sick and I arrived last Thursday with no voice and have been fighting a cold on and off since then.  My parents were away in the U.K. when I got back (they had planned the trip far before I changed my travel plans), so it didn’t really feel like home until they got back on Sunday.  Then came Hurricane/Superstorm/Frankenstorm Sandy, which luckily pretty much skipped over our part of Queens, but left billions of dollars of damage in other parts of the city, Long Island, and New Jersey.  As a result, I haven’t left my house all that much and I don’t have too much to say about readjusting to life here.  I shower less than everyone else and still get overwhelmed when hot water comes out of the faucets.  I had to train myself to use tissues rather than toilet paper to blow my nose.  I’m still getting used to living with other people.  I almost had a meltdown in Whole Foods (though to be fair, I’ve always hated supermarkets).

With various social events coming up, I’m sure I will have many entertaining stories of my new life that I will probably share with you.  In the meantime, thank you for following my crazy Guatemalan adventures!  Photos to come later because there are way too many.

Monday, August 13, 2012

2 years have flown by

Wow.  No seriously, wow.  Saturday was my 2-year anniversary in Guatemala.  I read on another Peace Corps blog that we volunteers actively keep track of our time in country and count down the days left.  Because I have yet to set a final ending date, I cannot accurately say how many days I have left, nor am I sure I want to.  But I do think 2 years is a significant anniversary for any occasion.  These have not been an easy 2 years.  However, I would not trade them for anything.

Surprisingly or unsurprisingly, this past month has seen huge advances in work productivity and community integration on my part, to be continued until I leave Cunén.  “Zumba” classes with my sitemates are a massive success: at least 30-35 women have been showing up every week ready to dance and sweat their butts off.  I have since been asked to help choreograph dances for youth groups, been invited to participate in community events with a youth association I hadn’t known existed, and met many new people.  I’ve attended more children’s birthday parties.  I went to Mormon church and (mistakenly, in hindsight) invited the missionaries over to dinner.  I fulfilled a personal goal of mine to visit the tropical and electricity-free Zona Reyna of Uspantán, 5 hours away from the town center on a windy dirt road through the mountains in a cramped microbus.  As painful as the journey was, it was definitely one of my favorite weekends here, celebrating my friend Laurie’s birthday.  Work-wise, the school kids and I harvested radishes and made healthy salads; I conducted a market visit to Antigua with Allan, my Save the Children coordinator, and scored some business for my artisan groups; and most excitingly, received approval for my onion warehouse proposal!  While waiting to receive the money, I’ve begun workshops with the association on proper post-harvest handling of their product.  Construction is set to start in September :)

at my host brother Fernandito's 5th birthday
Last week I was in Antigua for my training group’s Close of Service (COS) conference.  Peace Corps put us up in a nice hotel and more or less prepared us how to say goodbye to people and wrap things up in site, how to plan for the near future, and how to prepare for the shock of re-integrating into American culture.  It was a surreal experience; one that I’d anticipated for a long time but couldn’t believe had finally arrived.  Further bringing home the realization that the end was near was the fact that 3 of my close friends are COSing between this week and next, a couple of months early.  In true PC/Guatemala-fashion, we had a memorable (or not so memorable, depending on which way you look at it…) send-off and post-conference celebration weekend.

the final 13 (of my group's original 32) at COS conference

the celebratory happy hour...
Now I’m back in site, planning out the limited time I have left here.  I’m anticipating a lot of self-reflection, to which I’m sure you will all be treated to as it comes.  GRE-studying is well underway, to varied degrees of success, and grad programs are picked out.  Crazily enough, I even have a job interview lined up for when I get home, with the tech company Dropbox in San Francisco.  I’m really excited about it and waiting to see how it goes before sending in the Masters applications.  Expect a phone call soon, friends and family in the bay area!

Monday, July 9, 2012

Recovering my sanity

Not only is this the first moment I’ve had to write an update since the last one, but it’s also the first chance I’ve had to sit down and breathe since then.  To say the past month was busy is an understatement.  I’ve emerged from it with the following lesson learned: I seriously prefer my months of doing nothing.  Well, the ideal would be limited productivity, but this is Guatemala (TIG) and my life here knows no happy medium.  Sighhhh haha

What occupied most of my waking hours (of which there were too many) was putting together the project proposal I mentioned, to build a warehouse for the Trigales onions.  I managed to get all the basic paperwork in before I left for Costa Rica, but my vacation was rudely interrupted by an email asking for more supporting documents (at which point I almost decided to talk the group out of it…I warned you about my predilection towards doing nothing).  So I returned from my incredibly relaxing week in paradise only to wind my body up with stress once again.  The group and I got everything else together in record time, but due to confusion over the deadline, I submitted the whole proposal too late to be considered this month and now have to wait until August to find out if the project will be approved for USAID funding.  I hope it will be.  I’ve also been working with my ag leaders group on a far more basic project proposal for producing mushrooms, which will have to be majorly amped up if they’re serious about applying for a $25,000+ grant from the Inter American Foundation we learned about!

The other main thing keeping me busy was getting together the GAD (gender and development committee) raffle for our annual 4th of July party (held on the 3rd this year, don’t ask me why).  I spent a weekend hounding and cajoling last-minute donors, and then doing the same to poor PCVs so they’d buy tickets, and I’m proud of it, and of my awesome committee.  We raised about Q5,300 ($684ish), which is only about 75% of last year’s raffle sales, but with half the number of volunteers and amount of prizes.  Idk I’d call that a success :)  The party was fun even without the presence of all the friends who’d left.  It was just too bad that this was the second year I’ve worked the party without getting to fully enjoy it (read: I was sad because I was too tired to dance the night away at the after-party lol).

Now that I’m finally done with all that, get me back to COSTA RICA!  I flew in a day earlier than my parents to hang out in San Jose with Anais and Melissa, who made a special stop on her Central American post-PC journey to meet up with us (I also had the very lovely pleasure of sending her off from Guatemala when she finally said goodbye on the 3rd).  We bonded over the terrible acting and direction of Prometheus (seriously?) and the wonders of Costa Rican supermarkets :)  And then it was off the next morning to the airport to meet mumsyyy and daddyyy!  I hadn’t seen them since Thanksgiving, but time had really flown this time.  So basically I was equally excited to see them as I was to see the hotels mumsy had booked for us ;)  Let’s just say she knows how to do her job…fantastic (look here and here)!  Two nights at a private waterfall park/botanical gardens/exotic petting zoo close to San Jose and four nights in the wonderful combination of beach, mountains, and forest known as Manuel Antonio National Park.  Horseback riding, whitewater rafting, ATV-driving, forest-walking…all great (with the exception of horseback riding – never again) yet strangely dangerous.  I knocked my dad out of the raft while falling out myself, rode my ATV off the road and into a ditch (so much for proving to my parents that I still knew how to drive…quote of the trip was mumsy’s “where’s my hija??”), and gashed open my toe before even stepping into the park.  I think I’m channeling the combined forces of both Darren and Kate’s klutziness lol.  Nothing a good dose of sunbathing, sleeping, and eating and drinking couldn’t cure :)  And of course the daily sightings of sloths (I want one…I want to be one), monkeys (adorable), and Jesus Christ lizards (we saw them running across the top of the pool!) didn’t hurt – I must get back!

Some highlights from the week:

the Bohrers on horseback...
...and at the beach...
...and on ATVs
SLOTH! (a.k.a. Darren)
And now?  Can you believe in one month I will celebrate my 2-year anniversary here?  I don't think I ever actually imagined completing the 27 months, yet here I am.  Tomorrow I start Zumba classes in town with my sitemates, in a few weeks I may begin the onion project, in a month I have my COS (close of service) conference.  And I guess in October I'm done.  (The third-year project doesn't look like it's going to work out.  I'm secretly glad.  Except that now I actually have to open my GRE book and look for real jobs.  Luckily I've got lots of free time back on my hands!)

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Yet another year older

I write to you no longer as an irresponsible youngin’, but as a mature woman of 24.  Yeah, right.  Either way, with the passing of another June 7th in Guatemala, I have only spent one birthday in my 20s in the States.  Next year I’m planning on a quinceñera + 10 in New York :)

Luckily the international celebrations have been far from slacking.  I spent a week in Xela for Spanish classes and a GAD meeting (my first as Coordinator – success!).  The crazy new group kept me up until 3am when I had to wake up at 6:00 to get over to Antigua…to pick up Sam at the airport!  We had a great week together until June 3rd: eating in Antigua, visiting schools in Cunen (I forget that traveling to the middle of nowhere through winding mountain roads is not for everyone…sorry again!), shopping in Chichicastenango, and chilling out at Lake Atitlan :)  During that time I also received an awesome birthday package from Whitney with various favorite snacks and Guatemala-survival tools (like straws and rubber bands and Purell that only kills most germs!).

hiking Volcan San Pedro on Lake Atitlan
The week of my birthday was fairly slow and disappointing (some “why am I here?” despair moments, followed by further despair at the fact that I’m still experiencing such moments), so the best present I could’ve asked for was a wonderfully productive birthday day.  In the morning I met with my ag leaders in Cunen to start planning a mushroom-growing project, which has a lot of potential.  Then a lovely lunch with my neighbor ladies – the grandmother felt so bad that she forgot to wake me up at 5am with firecrackers outside my window in accordance with Guatemalan tradition – but I was like, THANK YOU!!!  It is a terrifying experience and I was glad to escape it once again :)  Finally, in the afternoon I met with the Trigales group to plan a project using USAID funds to build a warehouse for their onions.  Because of the timing of my upcoming vacation, we have to get the proposal together in 1 week (rather than the 1-2 months it usually takes volunteers), but it looks like we’re going to do it!  I’m also still trying to get Walmart to buy their product.  If both succeed, I’ll feel very satisfied that I’ve had a successful service, so here’s to hoping!

In continuation, I had a fun little party at my house on Friday with some Peace Corps friends (with lots of wine and a 3-tiered cake that I spent all day baking in my toaster oven!) and then this afternoon I cooked lunch for my host family.  I may have discovered a new favorite recipe: carrot croquettes!  Sounds weird and I never particularly liked ham croquettes, but my modification was delicious, just saying.  The celebrations will finally conclude with a trip to Costa Rica with my parents (and a night with Anais) starting on Saturday.  Let’s just say my mom picks far nicer accommodations than I am used to and it will be amazing :)

And despite the last few days of beautiful summer weather (for my birthday, obviously), we are undoubtedly in rainy season right now.  Things I hate about rainy season:

1. the various animals (i.e. frogs) and insects (i.e. gargantuan beetles) that seek refuge in my house
2. carrying around a cumbersome rain jacket and/or umbrella for days in beautiful weather and getting caught in a downpour the day I’ve decided to leave my rain gear at home
3. the moldy smell and damp feeling that penetrates everything
4. the streets that turn into rushing rivers in antiquated cities like Antigua (hence the name) and Xela
5. the streets that turn into mud in Cunen

What I like about rainy season:

1. the disgusting humid heat that blankets Cunen until the rain starts in the afternoon reminds me of summer in NYC? 

There’s some comfort in that although this is my third rainy season in Guatemala, it is my last.  Maybe.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Back to reality, kind of

It seems to be time for another update.  The thing is that so much has happened since getting my wisdom teeth out that I don’t know where to begin!  Well I guess the obvious place to start would be Darren’s arrival to Guatemala :)

I picked him up at the Guate airport and whisked him to Antigua.  It’s not that I didn’t think he could make his own way to Antigua (which some people implied, as it is a generally very easy feat), but the town was so busy with Semana Santa festivities that I thought it best to personally guide him.  Indeed, there were a million people around and we kept getting stuck in the various processions (which last ALL day and ALL night).  Even so, it was a good introduction to the country for Darren and he got to meet a bunch of my Peace Corps friends before our chicken bus ride to Cunen – no tourist amenities for my adventurous brother!  In our short stay in my site, he got to meet my host family and friends, shop in the market, cook me dinner, and laugh at my weird lifestyle :)  Of course, the joke was on him when I dragged him 12 hours across the country to Rio Dulce and Livingston on our way to...

Darren and I in Antigua at the end of Semana Santa
...Placencia, Belize, to meet up with my sitemate Kate and friend Rachel for some beach time!  At the Puerto Barrios dock while waiting for our boat to Belize, I thought I was going crazy when a random Guatemalan guy was like, hola Nicole!  It turned out that Marvin, Rachel’s boyfriend, was joining us.  I was like, I didn’t know you were coming…does Rachel know?!  (Yes, she did lol).  Anyway, after taking a boat, bus, and water taxi, we finally made it to Placencia.  Absolutely beautiful.  And fun; Darren enjoyed it too much.  But who wouldn’t love getting sunburnt, snorkeling in an incredible coral reef (though bringing contact lenses probably would’ve been a smart idea…I didn’t think how you obviously can’t wear glasses with a snorkeling mask, fail), and eating excellent Caribbean food?  It was with heavy hearts and itching skin that Darren, Kate, and I left Rachel and Marvin and headed for Mexico…where we finally arrived in Playa del Carmen 15 desperate hours later. 

getting ready to go snorkeling in Placencia
Funny side note: While waiting for a bus in Belize City, some local men shouted at Darren: hey man, we like your women!  Darren, rather than defending my honor, replied: I like yours too!  And they were like: but you got a snow bunny!  Moral of the story is that you may refer to me by “Snow Bunny” from now on if it pleases you haha.  Also, we got unceremoniously left at the Mexican border by our Belizean bus, with no pesos.  While not a very surprising situation, it was definitely unexpected.

Anyway, we arrived in Playa at like 11pm and as Darren had to leave for the Cancun airport to go back to New York at 4am, the logical plan was to grab dinner and not go to sleep.  So Darren’s 5 hours in Playa del Carmen were filled with tacos, a lost debit card, Israelis at the Chabad house, and beers on the beach…not bad.  He even made his flight, so mumsy didn’t have to kill me.  She only had to keep putting money in my account at a rate faster than at which I was spending it.

Kate and I spent another night in Playa and then flew to Mexico City…omg I need to go back!  We packed it all in: anthropology museum, Frida Kahlo’s house, Leon Trotsky’s house, Teotihuacan pre-Aztec ruins, Diego Rivera murals, shopping, eating, and dancing.  A lack of sleep and high levels of pollution took a toll, but I would’ve loved to stay more than 4 days.  Next were 6 hours to Oaxaca for a mole-filled stopover (sooo freaking delicious!) and an 11-hour overnight bus to San Cristóbal de las Casas.  Our 4 days there were filled with extremes: lazy afternoons reading in cafés, a 2-hour hike to a fantastic limestone bridge and grutas, a wild evening (featuring an immense amount of wine and a pair of hobo-musician dance partners), and lots of sleep.  The whole trip was overall extraordinary and I secretly wished I had taken early COS so I could keep traveling.  Especially once we returned to Guatemalan chicken buses (after getting dumped at another Mexican border with barely enough money to pay the exit fee…Mexican borders suck, I can only imagine what it’s like trying to get into the States!). 

Kate and I at the Teotihuacan ruins outside of Mexico City
lovely San Cristóbal de las Casas
So now I am here back in Cunen, after almost a month of being away.  Kate and Melissa are both gone for good, which is a weird feeling, but I’m luckily really happy with Tatiana and Mayra in their place.  I think even weirder is no longer having an office here.  Save the Children had cleared out from Cunen right before I left, but I’m only first feeling it now.  I feel kind of lost without a base from which to not only get work done, but chat and hang out with co-workers.  Plus I’m spending more money now on internet and things like toilet paper and water now that I’m in my house more – how did I go through 5 gallons of drinking water in a week without even being here the whole time??  Alas, work goes on with the schoolkids and various farmers’ and artisan groups.  And although mango season seems to be coming to an end (which is really okay considering how many I’ve eaten in the last few months), plums and peaches are back!  Rainy season is supposedly imminent, but we’ll see.  More importantly?  My best friend Sam is coming for a last-minute trip at the end of the month!  So it’s not really back to reality yet :)

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Time for vacation!

Wow, I really don’t know where March went, but I’m so glad it’s over!  I can honestly say that it was my busiest month since arriving in Guatemala (aka EXHAUSTING).  Too few nights were spent in my own bed and yet here I am running around again, qué locura!

Let’s see, the craziness began with a last-minute-planned celebration for International Women’s Day on March 8th in Cunen.  I didn’t actually think it would happen, but the municipal women’s office got their act together, soliciting some money from the muni and inviting about 40 women from Cunen and the surrounding villages.  The day was an overall success, though completely behind schedule.  Let’s just say that splitting into 4 groups and having them rotate to different activities (basic nutrition talk, healthy cooking demonstration, microfinance talk, artisan candle demonstration) is not a Guatemalan concept!  But everyone walked away happy and hopefully I’ll be able to coordinate more activities with them when I get back from vacation at the end of April.  And then immediately following the event was a surprise despedida (good-bye party) for my sitemates!  They had no idea about it and were completely surprised when I led them into the fancy restaurant in town…where 3 people were waiting for us lol.  I totally should’ve realized that all the guests would show up at the hora chapina (Guatemalan time, typically 1 hour late).  The good thing was that I didn’t tell them who was coming, so they continued to be surprised as each person wandered in :) 

the Women's Day event participants, minus those that left early
at the surprise despedida
The next day I woke up early for the Vagina Monologues weekend in Antigua.  First up was a “premature evacuation” party on Friday night for all my friends COSing early.  Allie and I were running around picking up and soliciting wine for the Monologues first and somehow managed to consume at least 5 free glasses each and a bunch of appetizers.  So the party, which would have been fun anyway, was a total blast :)  Saturday was spent in rehearsal…and Sunday was the production of the Vagina Monologues!  It was honestly a really awesome experience.  Although I’d seen the show before, this was my first time participating, and it being a multilingual performance (Spanish, English, and some Mayan languages) made it particularly special.  I’d never before even heard Guatemalan women talk about their vaginas or anything sexual, and here were indigenous women, generally known to be more shy, up on stage shouting about it!  Very cool.  Plus we raised about Q4,600 (like $560) for the NGO we worked with and the V-Day organization.  Also, a friend recorded my monologue and posted it here on YouTube!  Help me reach more than 10 views!

(The video starts a few lines in, btw.  The monologue begins with: 
Down there?  I haven’t been down there since 1953.  No, it had nothing to do with Eisenhower.  No, no, it’s a cellar down there.  It’s very damp, clammy.  You don’t want to go down there.  Trust me.  You’d get sick.  Suffocating.  Very nauseating.  The smell of the clamminess and the mildew and everything.  Whew!  Smells unbearable.  Gets in your clothes.)

the premature evacuation party in Antigua with some awesome people
the cast of the VMons
After that came 2 weeks of constant work with the school kids and my normal groups (also some play with a St. Patrick’s Day party in Uspantan, no worries).  I even arranged a meeting with the Trigales association and an employee of Mercy Corps, which could potentially result in a contract with Wal-Mart!  I hope it works out, especially since they’re the group I’ve worked with the longest.  Then came the weekend I had to say good-bye to all my PC friends leaving…I was glad I got to spend some more time with a bunch of them in Antigua.  I knew it was coming, but it’s still a weird feeling.  Finally, in an end to the crazy busyness, I spent a few days translating for a Canadian NGO that builds stoves in Uspantan (where I managed to lose my wallet fml) and then on to Nebaj for a presentation promoting the Save the Children artisan groups.  Some people from USAID showed up and I enjoyed talking to them about their work, my work, and where I’ll go from here.  A third year in Guatemala perhaps??  (I’ve been offered the chance to stay on for a third year as a volunteer leader in gender.  I have until the first week of May to decide…man, I hate making decisions!)

And now it’s time for vacation!  Well, almost.  I had 2 wisdom teeth removed in Guate yesterday, so I’m hanging out in the Peace Corps office recovering.  I think I’ll make my way to Antigua tomorrow, though, because I’m getting pretty bored here.  With Semana Santa (Holy Week) under way, there should be plenty of excitement – Antigua’s known for having one of the world’s largest celebrations, with multiple processions daily from the many churches, walking over the beautifully detailed alfombras (carpets made of dyed sawdust, and fresh flowers, fruits, and vegetables) laid out in the streets by the church patrons.  Of course, this also means that a majority of the streets are closed to cars and buses, so I’ll be going to the airport on Friday to pick up Darren so he doesn't get lost!

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Life goes on

I was down for a while, but life goes on.  And like the sun and hot weather in Cunen, my cheery disposition has made a comeback.  Yes, an inordinate number of my friends here will be gone by the end of the month.  But a few more people are staying than I originally thought, and there are now lots of new volunteers consolidated to Quiché to befriend, including my new sitemates who got here this week.  Most importantly, for probably the first time in my service, I actually have a lot of work, or at least plans for it.  School gardens, cooking classes, nutrition with pregnant women, collaborating with the municipal women’s office, on top of my work with the Save the Children groups, should keep me very busy.  And being busy keeps me out of my house, having pity parties with myself.  So, there’s that…lol

If you want to keep me from being depressed (or to provide props for my pity party), feel free to send me letters and goodies!  I will love you forever :)

Nicole Bohrer
Voluntaria de Cuerpo de Paz
Barrio San Francisco
Cunén, El Quiché
Guatemala, Central America

In other news, last week was a quarterly GAD meeting at the Peace Corps office…where I was elected Coordinator!  Not going to lie, I was the only one who wanted it, but the vote was unanimously positive ;)  With most of the committee members finishing their service, a bunch of cool new girls were brought on board and I think we’ll be a great group.  We’re all excited for our multi-lingual production of the Vagina Monologues next week, in conjunction with a Population Council project in Antigua!  I’ll be doing “The Flood” in English (I’m practicing daily!), but most of the monologues will be presented in Spanish by the young women participating in the project Abriendo Oportunidades, with some Mayan languages thrown in as well.  Below is the awesome poster for your viewing pleasure :)  All this has inspired me to plan an International Women’s day celebration with the Cunen muni for Thursday; the theme is “Empower rural women – End hunger and poverty,” right up my agricultural alley.  I’m really excited, I hope it actually works out!

the Vagina Monologues poster

After the GAD meeting, I took advantage of my very last opportunity to visit Whitney in her site…omg her village life is so incredibly different from my life in Cunen, which made it so great to see!  I felt like I finally got the real PC experience: sleeping in a wooden room (not a mud hut, sadly), running to the latrine in the rain, taking a bucket bath, cooking over an open fire, and communicating solely in an indigenous language (which I obviously wasn’t doing).  I honestly feel like if that was what I’d been assigned to, I could’ve gotten used to it.  Nevertheless, I was quite content to take a burning hot shower as soon as I got back to my fancy house!

coloring in Whitney’s house

Now what I’m most looking forward to is Darren’s visit!  His plane arrives at the end of Semana Santa and then I will orient my pampered (as if!) brother to the hostels and chicken buses of Guatemala, before heading to the beaches of Belize and Cancun, for literally a hot second.  I’ll be sad when he leaves, but Kate and I will somehow recover enough to continue on to Mexico City and San Cristóbal de las Casas, in Chiapas, just over the Guatemalan border.  I’m waiting for this month to fly by until then!

the wheat fields I find so beautiful (clearly I’m a city girl) in Los Trigales (trigo = wheat)

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Feria times, pt. 2

As always, time flew this past year and before we knew it, it was feria in Cunen once again!  While it was a fun week of diversion and no responsibility (because you know I worked not one day), last year really was better.  What couldn’t be controlled was the shitty weather; it was unusually chilly and rainy throughout the entire week.  But the more important difference this year was that the muni tried to keep costs as low as possible; a quite prudent step, considering that the new mayor announced Cunen to be Q6 million in debt…impressive for such a small municipality (suffice it to say that everyone’s cursing the old mayor).  Even so, the activities were abundant: election of the Mayan queen on Sunday night, election of Miss Cunen on Monday night, a First Communion on Wednesday afternoon (and the first of like 7 convites), burning of the castillo and toritos (castle and little toros, both comprised of fireworks, neither particularly safe!) on Wednesday night, and…Los Conejos on Thursday night!  Last year Los (Internacionales!) Conejos played in the park and the dance was free, but this time it was a private dance with a Q45 entrance fee…so worth it!  I love them; it’s a like 15-member marimba band that’s super fun to dance to.  Mary Frances from Uspantan joined us to dance the night away…celebrating Darren’s birthday from afar :)

the First Communion girl and her sister (on the left, I want to steal her) and cousin

Cunen en fiesta

las gringas y Los Conejos!

It was a fairly emotional week as well, at the base of which were boredom and a sense of uselessness during the day, as I wasn’t working.  Add to that: finding out that neither Whitney will be coming to Quiché nor Rachel to Cunen because they and the majority of my friends chose to take early COS; about 12 out of the original 32 volunteers in my training class will remain in country.  And finally: the news that my grandfather passed away that Tuesday night, the second grandparent I’ve lost since arriving here.  It’s true that you sacrifice many things and are changed in various ways in the Peace Corps, but some things you just don’t foresee.

Anyway, Monday was back to reality and thankfully back to work.  The 2 girls replacing Kate and Melissa, Mayra and Tatiana, came to Cunen for a few days for a site visit, during which I got to spend some time with them and help them find housing.  They’ll definitely be great replacements for my sitemates in terms of continuing their work, if not in terms of continuing the current “Cunen threesome.”  Then Thursday I had a meeting with the Save the Children ag project coordinator, who had some interesting news.  Both to give me a counterpart agency and to continue the project’s work once it ends in the next couple of months, they legalized the community agricultural leaders into an association, with whom I’ll be working.  It seems that I’ll be doing more organizational strengthening rather than marketing stuff with them, as they don’t actually produce anything (they’ll continue offering agricultural and basic veterinary services to their communities, plus whatever entrepreneurial projects they want to embark on).  I’m curious how motivated they are, which I’ll see when I meet with them this week.  Stephen’s in the same situation in Uspantan.

On the bright side, Kate got her application for Small Project Assistance (SPA) funds approved by PC and USAID, so she’s starting her stove project this week!  Melissa decided to skip the traditional SPA route and is funding her project solely with municipal support and help from friends and family – please donate and help her meet the goal of building 30 stoves in 90 days, about half of which are going to women I have a community garden with!  And while you’re at it, my friend Rachel needs financial help as well – any and everything is appreciated!  Both girls are staying on past their COS dates to see their projects through and make sure that the families they’ve been working with for over a year have this small improvement in their lives.

Well that’s about it for now.  I got back today from a night at my friend Kate’s site in Chajul (which forms the Ixil Triangle with Nebaj and Cotzal) for her going-away party, as she has exactly one more week left of her 2 years.  I’d wanted to visit her for a while as it’s an ecotourism site; I was impressed by the aldea’s beauty and the novelty of walking around in clouds because it’s so high up in the mountains!  I have some more trips planned for the month, for work and for fun (I’m also seriously looking forward to a planned 2 weeks in Belize and Mexico with Kate in April), but for now it’s back to the daily grind in Cunen :)

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Security situation update

Some of you may have seen something I wrote on Facebook the other day: “The Northern triangle of Central America [Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala] is the most dangerous place in the world outside of an active warzone.”  While the Peace Corps kids may be alright, the rest of the country and region are pretty fucked, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime’s first Global Study on Homicide.  The Obama administration has offered billions of dollars to help with the issue, and it seems that Capitol Hill has also taken a personal interest, as became clear to us PCVs when we were summoned to an all-volunteer conference last week.  Apparently Congress has been asking for some time why Peace Corps is operating in such dangerous countries; according to the Inter-America and Pacific Regional Director Carlos Torres, the specific question was: "What are you doing to protect the angels of our country?"  [sidenote: why does Congress always get caught up in the details and never look at the big picture?  And more importantly, what makes us angels??  It's not like we enjoy living on less than $300/month...!]

Anyway, in light of the new information presented to us, I decided an update was due, especially since some people seemed confused by my last one.  First of all, I am not going anywhere and neither is PC/Guatemala.  We are instead being consolidated into the 6 “safest” departments (which are like states) in the Central Western Highlands – those with the lowest homicide rates.  As El Quiché is one of them, I’m not affected by the decision at all.  For everyone currently in sites outside of the 6 departments – including San Marcos and Huehuetenango, which are in the Highlands, but will most likely soon be put under states of siege/martial law to combat the drug problems there, like in Alta Verapaz last year – they can either get a site change or take early COS (close of service, your status after 2 years of service), which has been extended to everyone on top of Interrupted Service.  Moreover, to bring numbers down as quickly as possible to better provide volunteer support, the volunteers who were slated to leave in March now have to leave in February, and the July group has to leave in March.  Again, as my COS is October, I’m not going anywhere.

On a more personal level, many of my ag friends affected by the policies are opting to get a site change for their last 8 months or so; Whitney may even move to an aldea of Uspantan, which would put us at 6 hours apart rather than 12!  Sadly, a whole lot of my muni friends have decided to take early COS and are leaving right away; I spent a nostalgic Thursday night with Noor before she disappears.  Another muni friend, Rachel, however may get sent to Cunen for her site change, which would be awesome.  Kate and Melissa, my present 2 sitemates, are part of the July group and are being forced out early, putting serious difficulties on their ability to finish planned projects (mainly building improved wood-burning stoves with USAID funds).  The good news is that the two of them will be replaced by 2 girls from their program (who came to country the following year) being evacuated from San Marcos.  So their hard work will not have been in vain and I will not be alone.

To be honest, I toyed with the idea of taking early COS…I wasn’t sure if Kate and Melissa would be replaced and if they left in March and Save the Children in May, what would really be keeping me here until October?  However, I would’ve wanted to leave in May/June, but the early COS option expires on March 24th, which is just way too soon for me.  I understand why many of my friends are taking the option – you get all the benefits of having been here for 2 years and it’s an opportunity to get out of a bad or stagnant work/living situation (though I’m totally judging anyone who’s been at site 6 months or less and isn’t even considering a site change).  But with the (albeit minimal) work I have here and the Foreign Service off the table, I figure I might as well finish out my time, during which I can take the GREs and apply for grad school or jobs for 2013.  All the uncertainty had totally freaked me out, but I’m back on my original track now.

Oh but what I’d wanted to stress was that it wasn’t the latest security incidents here that provoked all this change, though I’m sure they didn’t help.  Carlos Torres explained to us how Peace Corps has been evaluating at its Central American posts for a while now.  While Guatemala and El Salvador were deemed safe enough to keep us here while they make safety changes – including a transportation policy that involves a highly inconvenient PC shuttle on the Inter-American Highway – Honduras was not.  With the highest homicide rate in the world, Honduras has super dangerous pockets all over the country and so even if a PCV was in a safe site, they'd still be traveling through dangerous places on bus routes.  As I mentioned previously, all their volunteers were sent home temporarily while the security situation is being evaluated…though it seems that their chances of returning are quite slim.

At least one good thing about the conference was being able to see all my friends one last time before they leave; here's a photo of what remains of my training class (the serious faces are a play on how Guatemalans pose for photos lol).  We’ll be about a third less by March 24th…qué será, será.

And on the bright side, this week is feria in Cunen, so the fun times live on :)  We went to the cofradia’s (Catholic brotherhood) town lunch last Saturday with Jenny’s family…and ate at her family’s part of the cemetery…totally normal.  Melissa and I spent that night in Nebaj at honestly one of the most fun parties I’ve ever been to.  So actually between all the happy drinking and sad drinking (from everything going down), the conference was kind of a nice break haha.  It also forced me to cancel several work meetings, just as things were getting productive again…oh well.

Ok that’s enough rambling for now.  Since I’ll no longer be visiting home for the Foreign Service interview, come visit me hereeeeee!

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Times of uncertainty

Now that some points have been clarified a bit, I figured I’d share with you our security situation, which has been the hottest topic of conversation among volunteers.  You may have seen some articles posted on Facebook, but I’ll try to outline everything more comprehensively.

Mid-December: we received a cryptic text message from the Peace Corps administration to check our email.  As the texts go out in waves, I received 3 questioning calls from fellow volunteers without internet access before receiving the text.  The big – and unexpected – news was that following recent security incidents (volunteers involved in bus crashes, bus hold-ups, etc.), the new training class (slated to arrive at the beginning of January) was canceled, in El Salvador as well.  See the PC press release.  Moreover, through the rumor mill but also via another press release, we learned that all volunteers in Honduras were being sent home in January until further notice.  The NY Times picked up the story as well.

Beginning of January: another cryptic text announced a further development.  This time, the email contained a letter from the PC Regional Director offering “any Volunteer who feels that they cannot continue their service in Guatemala the status of Interrupted Service.  Interrupted Service is granted when a situation beyond your control prevents you from completing your full tour of service.”  Hold up: what is preventing me from finishing my 2 years??  Cunen could not be a safer place (despite being located in the midst of 5 far less stable towns) AND I only have about 9 months left, so why would I leave now?  Not to mention, there remained so much mystery about PC’s status here (would we end up like Honduras?) that it seemed impossible to make a decision without further information.  Unless of course you were involved in the security incident and want to get the hell out of here, which I’ve heard some people are doing.  The funny thing is that a little over a year ago, Noor and I offered to feed each other contaminated mud water with the hopes of contracting something serious enough to send us home…and now we’re offered a way out and we turn it down!

Mid-January: this was yet another standfast (standFEAST/[sit]DRUNK) weekend due to the inauguration of the new president and all new mayors.  You know, Guatemalans get agitated easily and might have rioted against some of the corrupt politicians assuming power.  Surprisingly, Peace Corps Director Aaron Williams came as the Head of Delegation of the U.S government representing the Obama administration…it’s like, sorry Señor Presidente, we know Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will be in attendance, but we’d rather spread a message of peace, cool?  As part of his visit here, Director Williams met with some volunteers and assured them that Peace Corps is dedicated to continue supporting Guatemala, so I guess that means we’re not getting sent home.  However, that doesn’t mean that the admin won’t make other security-related changes…

Inauguration Day in Cunen seemed to go fairly well.  I was woken up this morning by fireworks and the marimba music in the municipal salon, a block from my house.  It seems that the departing mayor did indeed show up for the change-over ceremony (word on the street was that he’d been missing for some weeks now), but he neglected to comment on the state of the town’s treasury (like if he’d stolen all the money or not).  It’s incredible how everyone here passively accepts the fact that the treasury is completely looted every 4 years by the outgoing mayor.  Rumor is that Los Conejos won’t be making reappearance at this year’s feria in 2 weeks, so the situation must be kind of bad.

Today was also the annual celebration of the black Jesus of Esquipulas (a town in the eastern part of the country), who has quite the following in Cunen!  Kate, Melissa, and I were invited to lunch at Jenny’s house and then dinner at her friend’s house…aka yet another day of massive eating with that girl (last Sunday was lunch and learning to make chiles rellenos and Tuesday was lasagna…suffice it to say my stomach was punishing me for several days!).  On the way home, we decided to stop by the mayor’s dance in the park, danced with some girl friends, and then got coerced into dancing with the mayor and members of his administration!  Off to a great start…haha

My busy work schedule for the month has gotten significantly less busy as people keep canceling on me.  On the bright side, I’ve had plenty of time to research grad schools lol.  I’ve also been researching nutrition for babies and pregnant women, a group I’d like to start working with.  Plus I scheduled cooking classes for this week with another women’s group, so there’s another day or so of work a month.  Oh my, that Interrupted Service looks more and more enticing…just kidding :)

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Happy New Year!

Feliz Año a todos y todas!

Wow, how is it already 2012??  Supposedly the last year before the Mayan-predicted end of the world.  Fun fact: the Mayans don’t really believe it will be the end of time; it’s just the end of this current cycle of the world and the start of the new one.  No Apocalypse is expected, just major changes, like climate change and maybe political chaos.  Hence 50-degree weather in NY in January and a gridlocked Congress lol

Anyway, after spending a fairly stagnant month of December in site, I got to spend a wonderful New Year’s at the BEACH!  First, December: I literally only worked 1 day after my last update.  It was a slow freaking month.  My Peace Corps ag director came to visit me during that time and was highly impressed by all the projects/groups I have going…I chose to hold back the fact that I’ve only been meeting with each group like once a month, so that’s maybe 7-10 days of work in every 30… We also had a big meeting with the Save the Children Medios de Vida (Livelihoods – food security and marketing) staff and some light was finally shed on the end of their project here.  Turns out that they were supposed to leave in September/October 2011, but extended for some more months and will be gone by May of this year.  I’m here until October, so figuring out how my work will continue should be interesting.  My final bout of productivity was attending a convivio (end-of-the-year gathering) hosted by a women’s group I work with in town that makes beaded jewelry.  They invited the new mayor to solicit a storefront in the muni and I helped them present before him and sell their goods to his entourage.  He surprisingly seems like an open-minded and eager guy, so we’ll see what happens to Cunen under his leadership beginning mid-January.

Of course, there was also a plethora of unproductivity on my part during the month, namely lots of movie-watching in bed.  I went to the Chichicastenango feria with Kate and her visiting friend, but managed for the second year in a row to miss the palo voladores – men flying around a giant pole erected in the town square.  FOR ANYONE WHO COMES ACROSS THIS AND WANTS TO SEE THE PALO VOLADOR IN CHICHI: THE FERIA IS DECEMBER 21 AND THEY FLY ON THE 19TH AND 20TH, ONLY.  I had to get that out there, since contrary information is up for grabs on the internet.  Despite that letdown (which I will hopefully avenge in August at the Joyabaj feria, another Quiché town with the same tradition), a weekend jaunt in my favorite place Panajachel made everything right :)  And then before I knew it, it was Christmas!  (Hanukkah was celebrated quietly with Kate and her friend and homemade potato latkes and apple sauce.)  Here they celebrate Christmas Eve, which I spent with my friend Jenny and her family in town.  Most notable moment: when we were hanging out with her married friend and she sent her 6- and 10-year-old girls to the cantina to pick up whiskey!  It was super fun spending time with Jenny and her friends, walking around seeing all the nativity scenes (nothing like American ones!), and of course doing the midnight traditions with her family: setting off fireworks, drinking hot punch, and eating tamales.  I don’t know if it was because we hadn’t really eaten dinner or what, but Jenny’s mom’s tamales were the best I’ve ever had!  I was happy because I’d been dreading the moment lol.  The next day I cooked an Asian stir-fry with Jenny, saw the children’s convite, and watched movies in bed – an almost normal Jewish Christmas!

Mayan nativity scene 

Children's convite

Fast forward a week of literally doing nothing and I was off to the beach for New Year’s!  The weekend started with seeing the American band known for party rocking in concert…fantastic!  Dragging ourselves through heat and hangover, we then made it to Monterrico to meet up with the rest of our group.  I can’t even describe how happy I was…I truly LOVE beaches.  There’s nothing like baking in the sun with sand in your toes and hanging out in the ocean (although I didn’t actually go swimming for fear of the crazy riptide).  Anyone who knows me knows that I am queen of awkward tan/burn lines, and this trip was no exception: I started out with sunblock (dermatologist-prescribed!) on only my face and shoulders, so the rest of my body got super burnt while I managed to actually exacerbate my previous farmer’s tan!  My skin is still prickling, but it was so worth it :)

party rocking! 

sunset at the beach

Now I’m back in Cunen and it is COLD and RAINY.  I’m seriously missing that choking coastal heat right now!  This is a pretty easy week, but with enough work to exceed all that I did last month lol.  January is looking pretty busy, for which I’m grateful.  It’s also austerity time since I spent most of my month’s allowance within its first 2 days…