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…