Friday, July 10, 2009

Vendeme Su Perrito...

I have never felt more American or stood out more. In the past months I've gotten the regular attention for my stereotypical American looks, the "CH-CHing" and name-calling. I've had kids stare at me and say the only English phrases they know (mainly Good Morning and I Love You). I've even had people reach and grab my hair. None of this though, really made me completely separate from the people walking beside me. However, with the acquisition of my new puppy Paxte (pronounced: PASH-te and translates to "scrub brush" in Kaqchikel) for the first time I feel blatently different. I attribute this mainly to the fact that I have begun to take Paxte on walks...on a leash... Something that just isn't done. Ropes are tied to about every other animal there is around here...pigs, cows, horses, even chickens but walking with a dog on a leash has promptoed an obsene amount of laughter, joking a staring. The conclusion I've come to though, is that if you're going to be stared at, might as well be laughed at too!

For those of you who haven't heard, my site mate Ellen found this little gem of a pooch eating trash outside of a cantina in my town, in the rain. Sad right? Well things are all right in the world because my little girl is happy, healthy and flea-free (which is more than I can say for myself!) I am constantly asked "What breed is she?" "Will you sell me your dog?" "What does she eat?" and "Does she understand English or Spanish?" To which I wittily reply "She's bi-lingual, she can bark in two languages!" HA! The last two weeks of June were reserved for vacations, in part for Teacher's DAY and partly because of the swine flu epidemic. Despite not having schools to go to daily I actually remained fairly busy! I owe this mainly to two things: Paxte and moving into my own place.

Fairly well behaved on her first vet visit, I took her on the gruelling two-hour camioneta ride to Antigua to visit the vet without any hint of vomiting, barking or excessive aggitation much to my suprise (myself experiencing two of the three). On our way back, however, I decided to pick her up a toy at the pet store in Chimaltenango. Now, let me paint you a picture. The sub-standard pet store is a couple of blocks from the bus stop, which is fine and I have Paxte in her little blue and red basket with her head sticking out looking cute as a button. The only problem with these couple of blocks is that between the bus stop and the pet store are a long line of bars with prostitutes hanging out in the doorways. I was nervous as first to walk by them all but everyone I passed was incredibly friendly, smiled and commented on how cute my puppy was.

Unfortunatly the timidness that characterized her at the beginning of our relationship was not maintained. I continuously call dad asking for advice (i.e. "a board fell on Paxte, what do I do?" and "will Paxte fall off the roof when I'm gone?") and insesintly complain to mom about how stubborn and over-dramatic she which my mom wittily replied "Karma's a b*tch huh sweetie!" In keeping with the idea that dogs reflect the characteristics of their owners I have been able to utilize two tricks my parents used when I was a child. The first being "keep 'em tired" which is why we walk and walk until she just wants to fall asleep (in other words the catalyst for the leash incident). Unfortunatly with the rainy season, walking her was become somewhat impossible. So, I'm trying the other trick my parents used while on long car trips. I keep a basket with a few toys in it, when she gets bored with one I give her another, and another and keep rotating. Like me, she doesn't seem to notice. Unfortunatly her toys consist of a really expensive ball with a bell in it, a rope that I tied in knots, a towel, and some crumpled newspaper...we're still working on it.

At the end of June I moved into my new place. It's a two room "loft" above a panaderia and stepping out of my back door on a clear day I can see three volcanoes. The girl that works below me has become one of my newest and greatest friends, she 4 days my junior and is in the 3rd grade. She is the sweetest and kindest person I have met, translates for me when I can't understand the business dealings in Kaqchikel, loves and plays with Paxte and is teaching me how to cook tamalitos on Sunday. I am truly blessed to be surrounded by such amazing people. The concept moving here just isn't the same, two weeks seems to be not enough time. Despite a number of complications however, I finally have a little place to call my own. The best thing about it though, it that I still have maintained my connections with the host family and have only added to the people I have grown really close to in only three months. The kids have come over often and I am still struggling for ideas to keep them entertained. In addition to colages (an activity that should only be done with 5 or fewer children at a time) and card games (down to two decks of 51) I have learned a so much about how to interact with children when I actually have to be the one in charge. The cliche "patience is a virtue" is an understatement and more than once I have semi-jokingly called my mom telling her she will never be a grandmother! Sunday lunch at Mama Chila's house is still a weekly thing, I often run into my host mom who is incredibly nice and welcoming and the kids feel more than free to come over to play or for English help anytime.
Though schools started the first of July, that week was reserved for an incredibly stellar extended weekend for a fourth-of-July celebration with all 170 volunteers in country. It was not very restful but non-the-less very needed break. Work did, however, start up with a frenzy as Bethany and I work of Annual Diagnostic Evaluations of the schools' sanitary conditions and a county-wide Rincon de Salud (Healthy Corner) Competition. Involved is making sure that every student has their toothbrush, towel, palangana, soap, etc. and that they are jointly placed in a creative and effective maner. Each school having between 2 and 15 classrooms, this was a task that is daunting even for us. But we have seen some incredibly creative and inventive Rincones, even for classrooms where there are students in three different grades!
In addition to this we have been working with the Centro de Salud doing health workshops on topics from HIV/AIDS to toothbrushing to natural disaster protection. Needless to say, there is no part of us that will be nervous speaking in front of people again!
I want to end with a bit of wisdom from my friendly neighborhood postman:
"Dogs have more friends because they move their tail more that their tongue!"
Interpret as you will...
Lots of Love from Guatemala!!!

Saturday, May 9, 2009


Dearest Mom,
I hope this cures your picture desires. I wish I could be there for Mother´s Day. Thank you for all your love and support. I love you!

So let me start with a few pictures of the places I visit and the things I see on a daily basis...

So Doña Julia has chickens and I walked out one morning to see eggs in the flower pot. Just a funny way to start my morning really.

There is a little space beside the house where a man park his "tuk tuk," this little vehicle. A concept I understand to be taken from India but one that functions well here regardless.

I spend a lot of my time playing with the kids. Since the rainy season has started I´ve been racking my brain for good indoor activities. Drawing and bracelet making seem to top the list as far as prefered activities. I attempted to make Rive Krispie treats when I first arrived.

Let´s just say that after spending a significant amount of time scraping burnt marshmallow from my new host mom´s best pan I think from now on I´ll just stick to what I know.

I mentioned in the previous post that Doña Julia owned a motor used to make the masa for tortillas. After boiling corn, salt and lye for hours, you pour the corn into this nifty contraption and out comes that beautiful stuff for good ol´tortilla making.

So Bethany and I travel a great deal to get to schools. Sometimes by foot, sometimes by bus, but more often than not we hitch a ride in the back of a pick up for a least part of hte way to the schools. We are also fortunate enough to often ride with the Centro de Salud when they go out to the various communities. This is the Centro and the official coche bomba vehicle we sometimes travel in. Hard on the hind quarters but so worth the ride!!!

As far as free time goes, I´m attempting to learn chess as learning how to cook is still somewhat of a struggle, and I have to tell you, I think chess is easier. Granted I have yet to win a game. I also spend more time than I´d like to admit at Doña Paula´s drinking atol in the evenings and listening to the rain under the tin roof outside of her house.

I´m still taking katchikel classes at the Centro de Salud. I started thinking it would just be a nice way to get to know the other people taking the class, it´s turned into a really fun and really informative hour with our professor Israel who is so sweet. We start every class leaning the Mayan symbol and energy for the day and a quote that coincides. Last week the quote was "The night too is the hope of a new day!"
Maybe, just maybe, I´ll absorb something in the process!!!

So at the end of June I will be moving out of my host family´s house and into a place of my own. The place needs quite a bit of work that I am uncapable of but I think I can do enough to make it enough to at least make it home. Bethany helped as I tried to rearrange a number of large concrete blocks to make stairs to the roof.
Let me also just say that this picture does not do justice to the size and type of spiders and other insects we saw in the process! I´ve never been tweeked by bugs, but even this made my skin crawl!!

As anxious as I am to live on my own and make myself a home in this country I have to admit I really am going to miss living with a family here. Doña Julia has included me like one of her own and I have loved having the opportunity to share time with her and her family. They have included me in so many activites. Aside from making a habit of Sunday lunches and Mama Chila´s house, they have taken me on vacations with them and invited me to all of their family events. The other weekend we all piled into the back of a pick-up truck and made a 3 hour trek to a place called Patulúl to go to a swimming pool. As it happened the pool was closed when we arrived but no matter, we just went to a hotel and paid them to let us use their pool and eat lunch their for the day. It was a blast. Among the highlights were playing mermaids with the girls (I of course was the mama carrying the babies or those that couldn´t swim) and eating a large lunch of Dove, Chicken and Iguana soup.

Week before last was "Día del Trabajador" or Worker´s Day and we celebrated by spending a full 36 hours making tamales and ponche which is a particularly delicious dish generally reserved for Christmas. What was the most interesting to me, however, was that while the men got the day off of work, the women worked about twice as hard both doing their daily jobs AND spending the time making the food for the celebration!

Making tamales is a process with many steps. Here is the abridged/illustrated version...
You begin by cutting two different kinds of leaves so that they will bend easily when needed.

After making a very complex sauce with many different types of chiles and thick pieces of pork, you boil a huge pot of potatos (yes tamales are usually made with corn but my family prefers potatoes.)
Then, while they are hot, you hand pick the skin off the potatoes, a process that more than burns your fingers and really hurts thyour fingernails. I have to admit though, it is definitly a bonding experience!

The potatoes are mashed, laid on the leaves, filled with sauce, pork and a chile. They are then wrapped in two different leaves and cooked on an open fire for hours. The result...a delicious and filling meal that is made tastier by just having invested the time and effort to make.

To end this I just want to say thanks Mom for having the courage and strength to support me in this journey. I know it´s not easy. You are an amazing amazing women and I am lucky to have a role model like you in my life. I love you so much!

Thursday, April 30, 2009

All Things Considered...

Well, I have arrived. It has been almost a month since we swore in and said good-bye to our fellow trainees and set out for our sites. So much has happened in the past month it sometimes feels like it’s been years since training actually occurred. I’ll try my best to describe Santa Apolonia in full but everything is so wonderfully new and stimulating I doubt I’ll be able to do this experience justice. After a fun and riveting swearing-in weekend in Antigua (where I spent about a third of my living allowance on good food and fun) Bethany and I said a final and teary good-bye to our host families and boarded the camioneta full of excitement and enough bags to supply a small nation…we were off.

Now let me try to paint a picture for you…
Bethany and I stepped off the bus in Santa Apolonia arms full of more baggage that two people can reasonable carry and lugged everything through this small town, all eyes on us, up the cobblestone streets until we reached the front of Bethany’s new house with a lamina gate. There we knocked on the tin gate and her host mom came to the “door”. As Bethany stepped inside to acquaint herself with her new home I stood in the gateway. I, with the help of my friend Jessica managed to find a host family but had no idea where the house was, had not yet met them nor had any idea of where to go. To be honest I wasn’t worried. I had spoken briefly on the phone with her and figured with such a small town every just knew each other. The conversation with Bethany’s host mom went a little like this

Me: “Hi Dona Norma, you don’t happen to know where Dona Julia lives do you?”
Norma: “Dona Julia who?”
Me: “I´m not sure.”
Norma: “Dona Julia…do you mean Don Julio”
Me: “No, I know it’s a woman.”
Norma: “Do you know her last name?”
Me: “No”
Norma: “Do you know about where she lives”
Me: “No”
Norma: "I think there´s a Julia that lives over there, she has a corn grinder, does she have a corn grinder"
Me: "I´m not sure"
Norma: "Ok well I´ll have my daughter walk you to her house"
Me: "thank you"

When I arrived at the house, no one was home. Suddenly, a young boy run up to me and said "are you the gringa?" I replied yes assuming both that he had one in mind and that he had said THE gringa as opposed to A gringa…and he ran away.While I was sitting in all my glory in front of the door, a woman with no teeth and a towel on her head came up to me and asked me what I was selling, I said nothing, she asked if I could give her money, I said no, she asked what I was doing here and looked in my bags, I tried in vain to tell her about Peace Corps and she asked how much money I made...I said the same as a new teacher and she said "poor thing" and walked away...As it turns out the little boy is my host brother and went to get my host mom from church...they showed me my room and her really nice house. She has a TV and nice kitchen and I have her recently married daughter’s room that has stuffed animals everywhere. Above the bed is a rapper guy giving a peace sign with the word NIGGA below it...there is also a picture of Sylvester the cat saying "To express my feelings is all I wish for" with hearts around him...Dona Julia is an incredibly sweet woman. She has a motor or corn grinder in the back that starts up at 5am, so I won’t be sleeping much, but honestly over the month I have gotten used to the constant rattle which is more comforting than anything. Recently I’ve learned that Dona Julia also “peels” chickens on the side so in the past two weeks I have woken up to sudden screeching shortly followed by…a sudden stop to the screeching. This isn’t as comforting as the corn grinder hum but I’ve grown accustomed all the same. At first the host family really didn’t know what to make of me. They asked if I was here out of obligation or because I wanted to and could not understand that I am here for two years. They still look a little surprised every day when I come home. We went and visited the grandma with a whole bundle of kids (I still don´t know who belongs to whom.) The grandmma´s name is Mama Chila and she is a everything you would expect a Guatemalan grandmother named Mama Chila to be. This often pensive matriarch with no teeth lives in a small compound with 2 sheep, 2 pigs, a dozen chickens a duck 3 dogs, a kitten and about a dozen grandchildren running every which way. The vast majority of the first day was spent playing with the increasingly growing number of children and answering questions that ranged from “Did you really come here by plane?” to “Do you like to share?” At the end of the first night I was exhausted.I went to sleep that first night and when I turned off the lights there were the glow in the dark one pasted all over the ceiling and I smiled....

So we’ve based a number of our assumptions about Peace Corps on the wisdom of previous volunteers. We have heard that training is the hardest part and that is closely followed by the first three months in site. Training was tough, but the first two weeks here were equally challenging. The first week, Bethany and I decided it was important to settle-in a bit, get to know our families and our communities. Besides, all the children had exams and school was pretty inconsistent for the week. Given the following week was Semana Santa, we essentially had two weeks with no work other than that of acquainting ourselves with own wonderful town. That first week I spent the majority of mornings laying in bed, listening to the constant rattle of the corn grinder trying to peg exactly where everyone in the family was in the house and how best to manage myself accordingly. It is the first time that my host family had anyone living in their house much less a foreigner such as myself. Similarly, unlike my situation during training, I was free to set the terms of our interactions such as when I would eat, how much I would pay to eat, when I would spend time with the family, etc. The problem was, however, that I had no idea what those terms should be either. Though I tried to establish some sort of routine, what our agreement eventually became was “if you’re home and hungry, you’ll eat with us” which suited me just fine.

Those first two weeks there were always kids around to play with which occupied most of my time. Even when eating at Mama Chila’s house the kids and I get served first in the kitchen, and the adults get served second. I can’t blame them though, I play more with the kids and the only other twenty-three year old in the family has a baby that seems to constantly be breast-feeding, so I can relate more with the children who are in school seeing as how I just got out of school myself. The problem with being an only child, however, is I really have needed to learn how to play with kids. What I’ve learned is…kids are exhausting. We changed games almost every twenty minutes and after an afternoon I was completely exhausted with no new ideas. Sometimes I would retreat to my room saying I had to nap but a few minutes later I would hear the kids called calling my name quietly and feel so racked with guilt that I would just get up and go play. As such if anyone knows of fun and easy kid activities, PLEASE let me know! If will be greatly appreciated!

Dona Julia is a wonderful woman. Over time, Dona Julia and I have more or less gotten to know each other. I know and love her family, it is filled with extraordinary women who function like a well-oiled machine. Although this has gotten better with time, she sometimes still looks at me with the same face she used the first two weeks…like I was some exotic little bird that had flown into her house and she didn’t really know what to do with it.

My second week in site was filled with activity because of the holiday. Lent, as I’ve mentioned, is filled with activities but I came to learn that the same doesn’t apply for Easter. Maunday Thursday and Good Friday were huge celebrations with lunches, processions and everyone baking different kinds of bread and little work, but Easter was just sad did little other than mark the end of Lent which I found fascinating! Try as I might, the whole egg-dying and candy hunting traditions just don’t translate.

Regardless I was so relieved to have the opportunity to start work. That first Monday morning our plan was to meet our new counterpart, an amazing man named Romulo at 8:00am to discuss the plan for the coming months. I, being the over-anxious worker with slight type-A tendencies that I am was awake, dressed and had eaten breakfast by 6:45. Bethany and I arrived early, waited until 8:20 to see him, had a meeting that lasted until 8:40…and that was really it. That was our first day of work. Poco a Poco. As little as we did that first day, we managed to get a great deal accomplished and by the end of the week had been to a meeting with the directors from every school, had started getting paperwork ready for some water projects, and had visited two of the twenty-five schools.

Work is slow but sure as we are still trying to find our way to the schools by bus, foot or pick-up truck but I absolutely love going to the schools and getting to know the communities. On Thursday one school we visited made a point to mention to the students that we are not here to harm them or to steal children as the rumors often go. I guess all things considered I’d rather her mention it than not, but it still caught me somewhat off guard. Another school completely spoiled us by serving us arroz con leche, my favorite hot drink here and a tostada shell with cheese and tomato sauce. The schools are very welcoming and because it is our first month, we spend the majority of our time now walking room to room introducing ourselves to the students. It has really paid off though, as we walk we can hear the students call out our names and we’ve started to recognize the teachers when we see them in town. It’s small things like that which really make me feel like everything is going to be alright.

As for the community I feel like I am slowly settling in. Even the men in town have begun to say “Nos vemos seno” (We’ll see you teacher) as opposed to “Good-bye muneca” in a broken English accent. More importantly however, is that I have found comfort and friends in those around me. While Bethany is a constant source of reassurance, we also have a site-mate Ellen who works in the Rural Home Preventative Health program in Peace Corps. She is a wonderfully stable yet witty person who is trying to teach me chess and is so well-grounded in the community that I wonder if I’ll ever live up to her example. And in the habit of incessant listing, the other day I sat and made a list of everyone in town who are my friends and everyone who is a potential friend (something I never thought I would do.) With a goal of introducing myself to one random person every day, my list is consistently growing.

I have slowly formed some comfort activities and daily activities that makes existence here more habitual than fleeting and I think has helped me settle into home-life here all the more. A couple of times a week, the three gringas, Bethany Ellen and I all go to Dona Paula’s for chuchitos (a tamale-like item made of the corn masa filled with red sauce and a piece of meat) and a glass of arroz con leche, which, close to dusk when it starts to turn cold, is the most delicious and comforting substance ever. Not to mention, Dona Paula and her incredibly cute daughter definitely made my friend list. It is so comforting to just sit, eat and talk to them and whoever else happens to come sit with us.

I am thrilled to have such wonderful site mates. Bethany and I are functioning incredibly well in the schools, complimenting each other remarkably well, especially in the speeches that we are instructed to give on spot. My other site mate, Ellen, is teaching me chess and has become my running partner (much to the shock of everyone that knows me as the die-hard aquatics fiend I am.) Though to be honest we do have a tendency to retreat to the comforts of Ellen’s house for a movie now and again, we also have a habit of going on our aldea walk. This hour-long stretch through some of the rural communities is uniquely refreshing and comfortable at this point.

I have slowly started learning the tricks involved in successfully washing my laundry. Though Dona Julia was sure to point out a few key things to this success,. Primarily, I bought the wrong soap (the one I bought gives you blisters.) Secondly I finally mustered up the nerve to ask where outside I can hang my ropa interior to dry. I was driven to ask this because the first time I did laundry in my new home, I didn’t want to display my pantaloons for the world to see but I soon realized that keeping wet underwear on a towel in your room only causes them to mold, not dry. I also learned there is an art to getting all the soap out of clothes, a technique that took many demonstrations and many observed (and scrutinized) practices to accomplish. Ultimately, try as I might I can’t get the idea of color-grouping my clothes out of my head (a concept that my host family thinks is hysterical.) As much as I hated doing laundry in the States, I seem to really enjoy it here, partly because it’s a good exercise-related stress reliever and partly because I get to do my “wax on, wax off” impression with soapy socks. This, however, my host family doesn’t appreciate, I think because there’s the lack of Karate Kid reruns on TNT in this country.

I also have grown into a comfortable habit of family Sundays at Mama Chila´s house. All the family usually gathers, I eat lunch first with all the children then while we go and play all the adults (including my 23 year old host sister who is a new mom) sits to eat. I really love Sundays at Mama Chila´s house, mainly because it is routine and a known and something I can count on to actually happen during the week. We usually eat really delicious carne asada or hilachas and I usually retire to the house shortly after for a long nap. I am really hoping this is something I can continue after I leave the host family living situation because the whole ´gather around the stove´ lifestyle that occurs on Sundays really appeals to me.

All things considered I have come to this conclusion…
Whether from the wild dogs or my own bed I have managed to catch fleas, my digestive troubles seem to be never ending, my bag was stolen while I wasn’t looking and I have never been happier. That is a good thing.

Food for Thought:
One afternoon when I went to Mama Chila´s for lunch, I brought photos from home to show that I am, in fact, a real person with a family and have not just been exiled from my own country. Mama Chila in all her wisdom, didn’t say a thing while looking at the pictures and I had begun to wonder whether I had made the right choice in bringing them or not. After she had finished she had three very astute and amazing observations…
The first when looking at a picture of Mom, Dad and I at the ranch…
1) “You really look like your Mom but you have your Dad’s smile. They are really young.”
The second after looking at a picture of Jon and I at the ranch…
2) “Your boyfriend is really hairy, why does he have so much hair?”
(I would like to note that the men here have very little body hair)
The third while looking at a picture of the aspens changing with the Rockies in the background…
3) “Isn’t it a shame that we will die and never know this place.”

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

And now it begins…

Well training has finally come to an end. The idea has circulated that Peace Corps service is filled with long days and short months…and I’d say I have to agree. It seems that training has flown by but sometimes it seems as if the days will never end. This has been by far the busiest month I’ve faced yet. Between visiting volunteers, finding out our site, visiting our site, packing to move to our site and swearing in, we have definitely been inundated with activity. The benefit of the “long day syndrome” however is that we seem to be provided with ample rest even if it is only a day or two intermittently.

As the month comes to an end, I find myself extremely pensive and a little nervous. We have been in this wonderful training bubble where everything was provided for us. I had a family that protected me and gave me everything I could hope for. I’ve experienced minimal cultural shock and have had the best medical care available should the need arise (which thankfully and surprisingly it has not!) We are now ready to be released. While I still have access to all of the same avenues and services the Peace Corps provides, it is now my responsibility to utilize the tools and training I have been given. If I succeed, it’s because I have been able to take really take advantage of these wonderful sources, but if I fail, it’s all on me. The one amazing thing about this organization is that everything surrounding me is meant to help us succeed. There is no inherent competition or climbing any proverbial ladder, it’s just a united effort intent of on the well-being and development of the volunteers and their projects.

I think a great deal of the nervousness I’m feeling is really a product of the disjointed ideas of accomplishment between the United States and Guatemala. It seems that the question most commonly asked of volunteers is “what do you do as a volunteer?” While this is a perfectly acceptable question and usually elicits an answer relating to projects that have been started or accomplished, schools that have been certified and fun that has been had, there really seems to not be a lot of doing involved, especially in the beginning months of service. I’ve come to realize that this is because of the need to build trust in a community and integrate myself before anything can be accomplished, but I’ve also realized that in many ways, who I am and how I act will be weighted heavily as opposed to what I do. This is still a foreign concept to be in the sense that for years I’ve defined my success according to what tangible results of efforts, and relied little on the importance of the effort itself. Much of my success in this culture, however, will be a result of the time I invest in being within the community, effectively establishing myself as part of it at all times, in all manners…and I’m scared. It is one thing to say what I do isn’t enough, but to say I didn’t succeed because of who I am? It’s a completely different means of self-analysis. However, at the same time, it’s an extremely refreshing concept. So few people get the unique opportunity to spend any significant amount of time on this subject and I am excited for my chance.

It that way however, I also realize that the coming months will be quite difficult in regard to what I will need to do. There are a number of things that I cannot control and nothing has made me realize that than the past month. There is a great unknown that exists with this move. None of know with any certainty if we will succeed or not, who we will meet or even what obstacles we will encounter. But along with that fear and that lack of control I have found comes a great relief. That there exists situations and circumstances that we cannot for see nor control means that ultimately we are only responsible for how we react, and that to a certain extent, we can rest in the idea that there is something else, something bigger than me, good or bad, that I do not have to take responsibility for. And that can be a comforting thing.

The next step after finding out my site was meeting my counterparts (or the superintendent and a couple directors from the schools in my municipality), packing up everything but a weeks worth of clothes, and traveling to Santa Apolonia to get acquainted with the town. We spent the few days we were there doing mainly three things: relishing in the idea of independence, trying to find a host family with whom we can live for the next three months, and going to schools. Of these three things, by far the most interesting are the latter two. Peace Corps rules state that for the first three months of service we must live with a host family and rightly so. We need someone to show us the community as well as introduce us to a community that knows very little about us and what we are here to do. As our training director so aptly says, “It’s like showing someone that you’re married…if people know at least one person that can live with you and put up with you, you can’t be all that bad.” Gentle words, I know. And so, Bethany and I, with the help of the current volunteers went tienda to tienda talking to owners, meeting the people of Santa Apolonia and asking about families we could potentially live with. After talking to many many people and with a great deal of help we have successfully found two families and are ready, with enough luggage to supply a small nation, to move in.

The majority of the time however, and bar far the most applicable part of our time spent in Santa was traveling to the various schools. We will be working in a total of twenty-six schools in the surrounding aldeas or small rural towns and will be traveling by foot, bus or truck between 2km and 17km daily. The schools range between those that are new to existence with dirt floors and limited water access to some that are already deemed “healthy schools” according to the program’s guidelines. The highlight of these visits came in the fourth day of our visit when we rode with a doctor from the Centro de Salud to two far away aldeas to give vaccinations to dogs. As we drove through the towns, he would call out of the window with a megaphone for people to bring their dogs to the schools for a rabies vaccine. At one point, we walked into one of the schools, told the students what we were doing and just dismissed them from school so they could run home and get their dogs. While the doctor was busy giving the semi-wild dogs their vaccines, we were able to meet with the directors and teachers and talk about their goals for Healthy Schools this year. I can already tell that working with the Centro will be a rewarding and equally adventurous experience!

Things I’ve learned about Santa Apolonia…
…I learned that there is no police force in this very small town but there is a pizza joint a town over that, if you get to know the owner, will deliver.
…I learned that the most dangerous thing at night is the chuchos or wild dogs that roam the streets like a gang of adolescents.
…Pedregal, the breakfast place near my town, is more famous than my actual town.
…I am very fortunate to have been placed where I am.

Alongside Spanish, the dominant language in Santa Apolonia is kaqchikel, the third largest of many Mayan languages spoken in this diverse country. Part of the preparation this last week for swear-in and the move to our site included an afternoon of Mayan language lessons. I have a new found respect for the people that can easily speak these languages because I have never encountered one as difficult to speak as kachiquel. We spent the first part of the lesson learning how to touch the back of your tongue to the roof of your mouth to make the q’ sound that is so important to the language
Q’aq’ = fire
Matiox = thank you
Ja´ = yes
Q’ij = sun

In the last weeks so many things have changed, and this graduation-like feeling has completely dominated my emotions. I have packed up, said good-bye to the school where we worked for these three months, expressed my commitment to Peace Corps and my fellow volunteers and have officially become a Peace Corps Volunteers. The ceremony was beautiful. It took place at the ambassador’s house in the center of Guatemala City. After words from the ambassador himself, the directors of Peace Corps and a fellow volunteer Jamie we all stood and together joined the Peace Corps family, thus dedicating ourselves to two years of service. We also individually received a certificate from the ambassador officially declaring us volunteers, or in other words, 3 months down, 24 to go!!

While I have so few pictures in this post, it does reflect in so many ways the events of the past two weeks. It has been a time of reflection, anticipation and preparation. As I embark on my journey in this new town, I will have many new adventures and photos to share so thank you for your patience with this post. Also, I want to thank everyone for your prayers and thoughts, it has really meant a lot to me to receive your blessings and encouragement!

New Address:

Joanna Sylwester
Voluntaria de Cuerpo de Paz
Tecpán Guatemala
Chimaltenango, Guatemala

(Nope, there is no street name and no more than 5 numbers in the whole address. I travel to the nearest town to pick up my mail from the post office where they will know me by name!)

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Santa Apolonia here I come!

Just thought I would drop a few pictures from the past couple of weeks...

And of course, there is no better way than to start with food. Here are some Guatemalan beef tacos that are then fried and loaded with boiled cabbage. Probably the best food I´ve ever eaten!

With the beginning of Lent comes a whole slew of festivities. Here was the first Friday of Lent in Pastores. Every Friday a procession occurs in the streets with a float-type figure of Jesus carrying the cross as he visits different houses in the neighborhood that place candles, vegetables, incense, and a photo on the table. The procession then stops at the house to pray and recite one or two repetitive Bible verses.

So a large part of last week was spent in a town called Santa Apolonia working with the municipal coordinators, learning what they do on a daily basis. Thursday, the first day we were there, we traveled 3hours to Totonicapan on a trip that felt more like an Indiana Jones ride than a bus trip. It was wonderful to get to see a new part of the country and to visit the other site in the new municipality program. Friday, school was canceled for the a huge basketball tournament of all the teachers in the area. Very entertaining in that fouls and travels are not really considered in the refereeing process! I am seriously considering asking to be part of the team, if for no other reason than the stories and to feel like a tall person for the first time in my life!

In keeping with the theme of Lent, Sunday evenings are reserved for a much larger procession in Antigua where people create alfombras or rugs on the street out of dried flowers, wood ashes that are dyed, and various other organic ingredients. People spend hours making these for the procession of men from the various communities robed in purple to carry a very large and imaginably heavy float of Christ and his disciples through the town. It is a wonderfully interesting experience and I wish I was going to be in Antigua for Semana Santa or the week between Palm Sunday and Easter as I´m sure it will be a huge celebration. The good news is that I have two years to see it!

Well the jury is out! The day our entire group was waiting for has arrived! On Thursday we all lined up on the basketball court with our eyes closed and were lead out to a chalk map of Guatemala to stand on our site. Needless to say we were completely suprised, but Bethany and I now know for sure that we will be in Santa Apolonia, a beautiful town about an hour and a half away from Antigua. We will be working in about 25 schools between 2km and 14km away and I am really starting to get excited! I will be meeting with the superindentent and two of the driectors on Monday and packing up and leaving Tuesday to visit my site for the week toprepare for the next two years. It has all come on so fast, I will be a legitimate Peace Corps Volunteer before you know it.
As a final note I thought I´d leave you all with a story...
So as you can see, one of the volcanos in area has been smoking a lot recently. This is significant because of some seismic activity in Guatemala that´s been occuring. The other night I was asleep when we had a somewhat substantial earthquake (according to my Colorado standards.) Although I thought it was a product of my malaria medication, I did manage to wake up enough to realize "Oh this is an earthquake, maybe I should go stand in the doorway," but did not enough to actually do it. I thought this was funny considering the fact that earlier this month I awoke at around 3a.m. and booked it to the doorway at the mere sound of fireworks outside my window! Needless to say, this story sparked quite a response from my family and I just want everyone to rest assured I have learned my lesson, and will now be standing in all sorts or doorways, false alarm or not.