Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Coca not the cola

Mom, please don't share the following with Grandpa.

Up to now I have written a very sunshine and puppies perspective to my Peace Corps service in Guatemala. I'm not going to lie, i've omitted some interesting experiences because headquarters tells us to leave the "bad stuff" for personal journal writing and, more importantly, because I don't want to give anyone in my family unwarranted anxiety (I promise you all I am very safe). Since I wouldn't consider the following a "bad" experience but rather an "informative" and maybe even a "cultural" experience I'm going to share it with you.

While I was spending my Christmas with firecrackers, tamales and Roger Rafael a whole different story was unfolding in Chapeton. Chapeton is an Aldea approximately 9 KM from where I live. I want to preface this by saying Chapeton is a great little beach town with respectable inhabitants (two girls from my soccer team live there) it just happens to be in a very "opportunistic" location for narco trafficking. Yes I said it, narco trafficking.

Guatemala, unfortunately, has become a pit stop for drug traffic to the states (damn American druggies). I'm no expert but it seems perfectly logical. Guatemala is expansive with plenty of jungle for hidden airstrips and has a futile police force that can't secure a square block in the capital city much less the country's border circumference. All Guatemalan borders (especially in the Northern Peten region) are known to harbor drug traffickers. Although I've been told the majority of the drugs move through the eastern side of the country, there is also the occasional narco incident on the west side. Which brings me back to Christmas in Chapeton.

After the Navidad festivities simmered down I spent Saturday afternoon at the Tienda Coop. The town was completely dead- only bolos (drunks) were wandering the streets and they weren't buying anything but guaro so I had plenty of time to gossip with the girls. We first talked about the dance on the 24th and then about the beach festivities on the 25th. Eslin had gone to Las Lisas but she quickly changed the subject to Chapeton. "There were two drownings in Chapeton" she told me. It was a sad story, especially since it occurred on Christmas day. "Two friends were swimming in the ocean and one began to drown, the other went out to try to save him but they both ended up getting pulled under." The rip-tides here are deadly and although dozens are known to die each year in the ocean, it doesn't seem to reduce the number of people willing to risk their lives in the water.

At this point in the conversation a plane flew overhead and Selvan came out from his minibanco station at the store and shocked me with his big guns gossip, "Looks like the cops are still patrolling for coca." Naive as i am I asked, "What coca, like drugs coca?". "Yes, coca like cocaine. They caught three lanchas in Chapeton filled with cocaine on Friday, shit, you should have seen the number of helicopters flying around." What? Where was I when all this was going down? I was intrigued and needed to know more. "But how did the drugs get into the lanchas in the first place and where were they headed?" As if it happens daily Selvan explained, "The planes flew over the coast at Chapeton carrying the coca, they dropped the drugs into the ocean right off the shore and the lanchas went out to retrieve them. The cops caught them before they could carry the drugs into the mangroves and hide." "Ah, I see." Although I wanted to know more I stopped prying. I figured its probably better not to be the suspicious foreign white girl asking lots of questions.

Saturday, December 26, 2009


I’d like to take this time to reflect on my first Guatemalan Christmas. In order to do so I have to rewind back about two Wednesday's ago. It was this day that I began to notice the holiday transformation. That Wednesday I came back from a morning at the Salina to Fernando painting the house. The “summertime” in Guatemala marks the end of the rainy season and therefore, the most opportune time to do outdoor house work. Fernando told me that every year they paint their house for the New Year. This is no easy feat since they have two stories and a large cement fence that encloses their property. It took him two weeks with a few days off here and there to complete the task- in the spirit of holiday giving I leant a hand and helped him paint the front entrance wall. The fresh coat of paint was just the beginning and as the days neared Christmas the whole house slowly got a facelift. First, the curtains went up in the kitchen and living room, then all of the trinkets and dolls still in their plastic wrapping (Guatemalans like stuffed animals) came down off the shelves to be dusted and all the windows in the house were cleaned with windex. For the next two weeks every time I walked into the house there was a distinct disinfectant smell in the air. The day before Christmas Eve (Nochebuena) Seño Lili changed her tortilla cloth from the standard colorfully striped design to a Christmas holly cloth and I even got a Christmas mug for my coffee in the morning. “Everything new for the New Year” they told me. Then on Christmas Eve day the protective blankets came off the couches in the living room. This was a big deal- those blankets are to my Guatemalan family like plastic couch covers were to my Great Aunt Billie- essential in ensuring furniture longevity. With the couch cushions showing I could sense big things were about to happen. Lastly, the morning of Christmas Eve Fernando got a haircut. “How do you like it?” he asked me. “Like new” I replied. The transformation was complete.

Christmas Eve I spent the day at Mama Noi’s house making invitations for Rocio’s 1st Birthday party out of foam paper with Jenny. Sidebar- Rocio completes 1 year on January 3rd and I’ve been told that there will be 300 kids in attendance at the celebration= we had lots of invitations to make. While we cut and glued and Rocio made "viejitos" with her orange popsicle face, Seño Lili and Mama Noi were busy making tamales. Lots of tamales. At 6PM it was time to go home and get ready for the night. Christmas Eve or Nochebuena is a big deal in my town. They celebrate the holiday as a community and everyone gathers at the town center for a dance.

Mama Noi’s house sits across from the court and thus is prime real-estate for any town function. We started the night off there and ate a meal of tamales, escavech and fresh fruit punch. Then as always, we took a little rest in the hammocks. At this point Hilmer, Rocio’s dad, came over with firecrackers and we lit them off as the people in town began to fill up the area outside the basketball court. Kids were running around setting off firecrackers and the baile DJ started blasting music from his loudspeakers.

I have often told my family how much I enjoy dancing which prompted them to insist that I dance at the Nochebuena baile. At about 10PM Fernando (with the help of a little liquid courage) took me onto the dance floor. At first I was excited to get out and dance but was quickly reminded of how much I still stick out in town. As soon as I started to dance I felt like everyone was staring at me. After about three songs a tall skinny guy came up and ask Fernando something. I heard him respond, “Not yet” and the guy walked away visibly upset. I’m not sure but I think Fernando nixed his attempt to cut in. At this point Fernando started to get a little sweaty. Drips ran down his forehead and his hand became slippery but still he happily danced me in and out and through the crowd on the dance floor. We bumped (literally) into Mattihus dancing with a cute little muchachita- made Fernando proud. And I saw a few of the girls on my soccer team dancing with their boyfriends. After a good six songs I politely told Fernando I was tired. When we left the dance floor I had a wet spot on my shirt from Fernando's sweaty hand. I showed it to Lili which caused her to break out into a laughing fit. As Fernando and I made our way back to Mama Noi’s patio no fewer than four guys I know asked me, “when do we get to dance?” I smiled and said, “later” but thought, “Oh no, what have I got myself into?” Back at Mama Noi’s we waited for midnight. It is tradition in my town to give a hug at 12AM Christmas Day. I was told that everyone hugs their family. This concerned me because in a town of 1,000 everybody is at least cousins. Logistically this midnight hug could get a little complicated.

At about 11:30 out of nowhere Fernando’s “sons’” families pulled up in a pick-up from the capital. Sons in quotes because the two men were introduced to me as “hijos” but are actually not his blood- he helped raise them when he lived in the capital in his early twenties. So the family instantly grew by about ten including a little newborn baby Roger Rafael (after Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal-his parents are apparently tennis fans. Don't worry, I was confused too). They arrived in perfect timing for the hug. When the clock struck midnight the center of town exploded with fireworks, everyone cheered and began their “Feliz Navidades” and hugs. This lasted a while until the music picked up again and people were back at it on the dance floor. Uninterested in being passed around the dance floor I declined invitations back into the baile. At 1:30AM the music was shut off and all made their way home for a good nights rest before Christmas.

Christmas day I woke up at 8AM threw on my bathing suit, tank-top and shorts (the typical Guatemalan doesn’t swim in a bathing suit. They go in the ocean in a t-shirt and shorts- one of my least favorite cultural differences.) and went downstairs to wish everyone a Feliz Navidad. We ate breakfast, packed up the truck with food, beverages and beach supplies and were off to the barra at Las Lisas to spend the day at the beach. We swam, cooked-out and watched the kids play in the water all day long. By the time we got home at 7PM I was exhausted from all the time spent in the sun. I took a quick shower to rinse off the beach sand, turned my fan on, slipped into bed and got a good nights sleep.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Huntin' Iguana

Iguana is an epicurean delicacy here. I’ve been told that a good sized iguana can be sold on the market for Q200. To put that in perspective, a full meal (plate of meat, rice, veggies and a soda) at a comedor here costs Q15. So when Seño Lili called me to lunch one day, put a foreign meat on my plate and said, “Iguana, try it”, I did. The meat was a bit rubbery, I guess that’s what one would expect from reptile meat. It tasted a bit like chicken but with an extra strong smokey flavor. When I mentioned this Seño Lili she laughed and said, “thats because it was just taken off the fire” but my palate was convinced it wasn’t just the grill. Then Fernando came to the table for his portion. He sat down with the satisfied thud of a General ready for a feast after winning a battle. I noticed three long red claw marks on both of his forearms. His plate of iguana was served and he began telling me, “Oh this iguana put up a good fight. We hunted six hours to take home four iguanas and this one we caught last.” Up until this point I hadn’t been told that Fernando actually hunted my lunch himself. Seño Lili was standing proudly and listening to the story over his shoulder as he continued, “She was up in a tree and when I grabbed her she clawed me here and here,” pointing to the red marks on his left arm, then his right. “Her body was this big” he sized up the iguana with his hands about three feet long. Then he dove into his meal. As I watched him happily munch away on his catch I couldn’t help but think of that poor female iguana (probably with little baby iguanas to take care of) up in that tree struggling with Fernando trying to escape capture. It all seemed so cruel. Thats when I decided I didn’t really like the taste of iguana.

I don’t know what role iguanas play in the ecosystem. I guess I should google them or something cause I’m sure they eat bugs (hopefully mosquitos) or do something useful to man. If true, that would make me feel even better about not wanting to eat them despite their popularity amongst Guatemalans. Regardless of my opposition to the idea of catching and eating iguana I am still fascinated by its cultural significance here. I have to imagine the real motivation to hunt iguana comes not from the taste of the meat but from the thrill of the hunt and pride in the catch. It must feel good to walk through town after a long day in the mangrove with a large iguana in hand for all to see, its stringy claws tied tight, swaying by its tail in step with the hunter’s bravado. A guy thing of course. I know this because when I told my boyfriend Colin that Fernando caught an iguana and we ate it for lunch his response was, “I want to go hunt iguana.” That night while we were swinging off our dinner in hammocks I told the family that Fernando has a new hunting partner. Seño Lili’s joked, “Are you sure Colin wants to hunt six hours in the mangrove? Maybe he should start with catching the iguana that sunbathes on our neighbors roof.” This statement only furthered my belief that iguana hunting was done for the thrill of it. If it was done out of necessity, I would expect that big fat iguana on my neighbors roof would have been lunch meat ages ago. But instead, everyone in town leaves it in peace and trudges off to the mangrove to hunt.

One day, about two weeks ago, I walked home from the Coop to find Fernando and his friend outside proudly gazing at a large iguana stretched across the patio. They had been hunting that morning and were admiring their catch. I couldn’t resist, I ran upstairs to get my camera. When I got back downstairs I had Fernando pose for a few pictures.

I was certain the iguana was dead so when it started to move its legs I freaked out which amused the men. The poor thing was still alive. The animal lover in me sighed. I couldn’t bare to think that this little beast was going to be murdered. What did it ever do to deserve this fate? I shook off my pity. Then I took a few pictures with it.

A few days later I was off too Hawaii (not the island in the US but a beach town on the pacific coast in Guatemala) to visit with other Peace Corps volunteers. Fernando’s iguana was still alive tied up in the back of his pick-up truck. As I was heading out the door Fernando pointed to some soccer bruises on my leg and said, “Tell Colin you got those from fighting the iguana.” Luckily, I never watched Fernando finish off the little beast and I was in Hawaii when the family had their iguana feast.

I don’t only have run-ins with iguanas when Fernando brings them back from the mangrove. One lives on my roof. I hear him from time to time chirping like a little bird or scurrying along the plastic roof making scratching noises like a rat. Sometimes he even makes quick appearances in my room. A leg here or a tail there peaking through the crack between the roof and the rafters. Last Sunday was the first time I actually saw him in his entirety. He ran across the wood rafter above my bed while i was reading. I was scared shitless and prayed that he wouldn’t slip. My mosquito net wouldn’t have protected me from that ten pound monster.

And just yesterday I came home from a soccer tournament (my team took 1st place and the Q400 prize that came with it) I opened my door and off jumped an iguana from the top of my fan. He scurried under my bed and I had to shoo him from my room with a broom.

My bedroom has been the hub of much critter activity. I wouldn’t want to take away from the other little animals i’ve been surprised by so i leave you pictures of some of the most notable: a scorpion and little frog.

Thursday, December 10, 2009


The salt harvest started this week. Final preparations were underway at the Cooperative’s salina. The socios were out laying down and patching up the nylons, perfecting barriers and even beginning to pump salt water onto the land.

Tuesday I had arranged to go to the salina with Jose Angel, one of my socios, to get a quick look at the operation before my 9 a.m. English class. I woke up at 5:30 and drank a cup of Folgers. Yes, Folgers, the staple American “wake up to Folgers in your cup” instant coffee we all know so well. Seño Lili’s sister shipped a Costco size jar of it from New Jersey. Why, you might ask, in a country known for growing some of the best coffee in the world, would people want to drink Folgers? Because all the good stuff is shipped to the United States. Let me be clear, Guatemalans love their coffee. They drink it like water. Probably because the coffee they are used to drinking, the coffee that is kept in the country for national consumption, kinda tastes like water. Like hot water and a LOT of sugar (they love their sugar as much as their coffee). Sadly, most Guatemalans don’t know what they are missing out on. So yes, as a "treat", I started my day with Folgers in my cup.

The plan was to meet Jose Angel at 6:00 in front of the Cooperative and we would bike to the Salina which is about 2 KM from town. I borrowed Mattihus’ bike and was at the Coop by 6. When 6:15 rolled around and there was no sign of Jose Angel, I thought to myself, “I should have known better than to expect him here at 6:00”. I guess my American punctuality hasn’t adjusted to Guatemalan time yet. At 6:30 Jose Angel showed up and we started our trip to the salina. Unfortunately, I didn’t get more than 10 yards before Mattihus’ bike started making odd rattling noises. Jose Angel turned to me with a concerned look on his face. At yard 40 the chain fell off the bike in the middle of the street. Jose Angel stopped his bike, ran back to me, flipped the bike on its handle bars and started to investigate. The commotion had grabbed the attention of two other men nearby- the owner of the furniture store and a tuk-tuk driver waiting on the street corner. They both ran over to help. The three men then stood around the bike fiddling with the tires and frame. When they agreed on the final diagnosis all three of them went running in different directions, grabbed tools from random stores on the street and ran back to the upside down bike. They quickly cranked the tire and frame back into place with a wrench and pliers. I was amazed at how the three of them happily and swiftly worked together to fix my bike. If I had been on Ocean Ave. in Santa Monica and my bike went bust, I guarantee no one would have stopped to help. I would have had to walk it back home, drive it in my car to a bike shop and pay someone to fix it. Not in Casas VIejas. My bike broke, strangers lent a hand and no more than ten minutes later Jose Angel and I were back en route to the Salina.

When we got to the Salina, I was amazed at how great it looked. I had seen the land on my site visit two months prior but the land was barren- just a skeleton of a salina. At that time I had to really use my imagination to picture how anyone could harvest salt off the plot. Tuesday was another story. The nylons were laid perfectly, the barriers were up and the salt water was already flowing.

To give a quick overview of how harvesting salt works... Big black nylons or tarps are laid down over the land in a windy switchback formation- think a line at Disneyland or airport security (back and forth, back and forth). Little barriers of pushed up dirt line the sides of the nylons- think bowling alley bumper lanes. At the end of the windy line of nylons are “patios” or square plots also covered in nylons- my Cooperative has 17 of these patios. Harvest season starts five weeks or so after the rainy season stops. This is when the workers take a big motor and pump salt water from an underground well onto the starting point of the windy nylon. As water is pumped it slowly winds its way through the nylon maze all the way to the end- evaporating in the heat of the day as it goes along. At the end of the line of windy nylons what is left is a little water and a lot of salt. The very salty water is then pumped into the patios. It sits in the evaporating even more sun on the patio until the patio is full of sea salt. The salt is then swept up into piles and is ready to be packed-up.

I watched as Jose Angel swept up all 17 patios full of sea salt. 8 a.m. came quickly thereafter and I had to leave to teach English. I’m glad I finally got my first taste of the salt harvest. The process was fascinating and I’ve already told all the socios I want to go back soon to sweep up some salt on my own. This, of course, has given them much amusement because salt harvesting is a “man’s” job. I’m looking forward to showing them that a woman is just as capable.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

I'm Only Human

I’m pretty sure you are all sick of hearing about Michael Jackson. Since the moment the media blew up with news of his untimely death this summer I haven’t seemed to be able to escape him either.

One of the first weeks I was here in training, still fresh off the plane and a little overwhelmed with Guatemalan culture shock I had my first encounter with Mike in Guate. I was walking with my host sister Sylvia towards the Sunday market in Alotenango, when all of the sudden like a faint beacon in the dark, I heard the soft hum of a familiar melody. “Weary, Tell Me Will You Hold Me, When Wrong, Will You Scold Me, When Lost Will You Fiiiiind Me?” “Awe, Free Willy, I love this song” I thought as I walked closer to the source of this pleasant musical gift- a 4 ft tall black loudspeaker placed outside a store that sells ovens and mattresses. The song reached my favorite part and I made Sylvia stop in front of the loudspeakers (she thought I was crazy). The booming sent robust sound waves directly to the core of my being. A smile came to my face and I mouthed the next verse as shoppers scurried around me (they also thought I was crazy), “But They Told Me, A Man Should Be Faithful , And Walk When Not Able , And Fight Till The End , But I'm Only Humaaaaan”. It took everything inside of me to keep myself from swaying to the music. The song was a welcome comfort. It gave me a momentary escape from all the foreign things around me. I wanted to stay until the end just standing there basking in Michaelness but I thought it would have a negative impact on my efforts to integrate (everyone already thought I was crazy) so I turned and kept walking, albeit slowly, towards the market with Sylvia.

At the time of this incident I didn’t find it significant enough to blog about.

Last week I went up to El Quiche, a highly indigenous part of the country in the northern highlands, and had my second notable run in with Michael. I was in a group of five volunteers spending Thanksgiving in Nebaj, El Quiche where two of the volunteers that I was with have been placed. One day we had the good fortune of being invited to the nearby village of Acul to eat a meal of the local fare, boche bols (I’m butchering the spelling- the only way I have any remembrance of what the dish was called is because it sounded a bit like bocce balls) prepared by a local family. Scott, the volunteer who works in the village guided us through the town to a tiny white washed wooden house. As we approached a small indigenous man was placing planks from the road over a muddy ditch to the entrance of the house. Scott stopped to say hello, introduced us all to the man and he welcomed us into his house.

The inside was one large room with dirt floors, a large table and chairs were set up in the front, three or four twin beds lined the side wall and a tall bulky armoire stood in the front corner. On top of the armoire sat a small TV and DVD player. We all sat at the table and while we waited for our meal to arrive we chatted and then Johnny, the other volunteer from El Quiche, played a few songs on a guitar taken down from a hook on the wall above the beds. As soon as the guitar was hung back up the little indigenous son of the small indigenous man climbed like a monkey atop the armoire and popped in a DVD for us to watch. As the TV lit up “Michael Jackson Live from Bucharest” read in white letters across the screen. The scene quickly changed to Michael performing “Bad” wearing a military-esq jacket over a sparkly silver leotard over black floodwater pants that showed his signature white socks. Now all six of us, five volunteers and one little indigenous kid, sat transfixed to the TV watching Michael perform his classics to a crowd of hysterical Eastern Europeans. It was a surreal experience- my description gives it no justice. In the middle of Michael’s "Thriller" performance a scratch on the DVD made the disk skip and sent the kid crawling back up the armoire to try to clean out the dust. His efforts were unsuccessful. He gave up with the concert DVD but then awed us all with a few Michael dance moves including the moonwalk as the steaming boche bols were being delivered to the table.

As I ate my meal, sitting in this small house with a dirt floor in the middle of the Guatemalan highlands it dawned on me how far reaching Michael Jackson’s influence is. This family that doesn’t have indoor plumbing has a son that has watched enough Michael Jackson concerts on DVD that he can do the moonwalk. Truly incredible.

Still, the moonwalk performance didn’t seem blog worthy.

Today, as I was riding down a pot-hole ridden road in a beat-up sky-blue toyota pick-up truck I had my tipping point MJ experience. I was on a trip to visit our Cooperative’s accountant in Chiquimulilla with my counterpart, Toribio. Rides are hard to come by here so before we left town his mother-in-law and 7 nieces and nephews piled in the back of the pick-up to be dropped of at a local watering hole 10KM outside of Casas Viejas. We were flying down the road swerving to miss all the bumps and ditches in the pavement. I shared the front seat with Toribio's little daughter and niece. They were both munching on Guatemalan cheetos on my lap and playing with each others shoes. I was looking out the window with my eyes stuck staring at the dangling, cracked, mirrorless side-view mirror when I heard a voice sing, “Billie Jean is not my lover” I turned my head towards the drivers seat where the noise was coming from. My counterpart was driving- concentrated on the road ahead- but in the top left corer of the driver’s side window a little boy's head was creeping into the cab. It was one of Toribio’s nephew’s and he was singing the lyrics to "Billie Jean". He was sitting on the outside wall of the bed of the truck, hanging over the side and clasped to the driver’s window with wind blowing in his face while belting Michael Jackson. I thought to myself, “Alright Mike, I give in, i’ll blog about you”.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Teaching English

Everyone here wants to learn English, a fact that has become exceedingly apparent since the moment I stepped foot in site. Three of my Cooperative Socios are teachers (one is also a director) at the elementary/high school in town so the topic of teaching english was inescapable from the very start. When first asked if I could teach English I said, “there is a possibility.” And from that point forward my socios would introduce me as, “This is Annalisa, she is a volunteer with Cuerpo de Paz and will be working with the Cooperative for the next two years and she said there’s a possibility that she will teach English to the kids, right Annalisa?”. They’d turn to me smiling and nodding and I’d reply, “Yes, there is a possibility.”

During training we were warned about this. Guatemalan’s look at all Peace Corps volunteers and see an “I know English” stamped across our foreheads. Hence the reason why every Guatemalan that knows any English ALWAYS throws out a word or two in passing or in conversation. I constantly hear, “Hello” (more like: haylow) in the streets. In conversation, random words or phrases will just pop out of mouths like, “taste good”, or “hot” or “car”, “store”, “shopping”. These words are normally followed by a smile and a look on their faces that requests some reassurance that they said the word properly.

It is nearly impossible for PCVs to go through service without being asked to teach English. I personally have no problem with it, but the Peace Corps constantly reminds us to not let teaching English interfere with our main project- Agricultural Marketing in my case. In my case, I took teaching English as a good opportunity to get to know some more faces, integrate a bit and gain a little trust in the community. SInce I arrived in site during “summer break” it also gave me a two month window to teach 10 classes until January when school picks up again. “Get in and get out quick” mentality.

My English classes started last week and so far so good. The students, who are supposed to be 11-15, are eager to learn and well behaved. I was amazed when on the first day of class there were students waiting outside the classroom 30 minutes early. Everyone here runs on la hora Chapina (aka Guatemalan time aka at least 30 minutes late) so this punctuality meant my classes were important to them. The first class I taught I had about 30-40 students. The next class again I had 30-40 students but some new faces and some students didn’t return. The third class I had 72 students. There were so many students they didn’t all fit in the classroom. There were kids sitting on tables, dragging in chairs from other classrooms and sitting 5 to each table meant for 2. The classroom was overflowing with kids, literally, there were students outside huddling in chairs around the classroom door. I am pretty sure the fact that my classes are free has been the major draw for the town. In my class of 72 there was also an entire family, mother, father and kids, that just received their papers to go to the U.S. and obviously wanted to soak up as much English as possible before their departure.

So far we have reviewed basics, the alphabet, numbers, colors, salutations, introductions, emotions, names of family members and “to be” and “to have”. What I find frustrating is that its a little difficult to gage whether the students are actually learning. They love to repeat words after me, in fact they shout the words out. But if I call on anyone to talk or come up to the whiteboard to present something all of the sudden they become voiceless. I’m hoping that after these initial ten classes if I continue to teach English (and I don’t think there is anyway out of it) I will be able to have a smaller class size- ideally a class sized for one room.

p.s. my women’s soccer team lost in the final. It came down to penalty kicks- thank goodness I made mine. If I hadn’t, I may not have been welcomed back to town.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Food Coma

My father has been known to make swiss cheese out of the New York Times. Not a day goes by that he doesn't put scissor to some sort of reading material- newspapers, magazines, pamphlets, promotional materials, even those little flyers of information you get when visiting an exhibit at a museum (he'll pick up three). You name it - if it has writing or pictures that interest him- its bound to have a future date with his scissors. His routine goes like this: find article or picture, cut it out, sometimes make a collage of it, add a sticky note, insert in envelope with other clippings, seal and mail to family or friends. Since arriving in Guatemala I have received a healthy stash of Dr. Bob supplied reading materials (thanks papa!). I have slowly been going through all the articles he has sent and last night I decided to dive into the last of my clippings. One half of a Dartmouth Medical Magazine. My dad had highlighted an article on medical care given in Nepal for me to read "Anna- one of the volunteers writes grants for the Nepalese- similar to P.C. -Dad". It was 9PM on a Friday night and I felt like I should stay up late (just on principle) so I settled down with the magazine and started with the first article about researcher's findings on how organisms are controlled by an internal circadian clock. When I was done with that one I read the next on comatose patients and the moral challenges treating physicians have with the push for "early family intervention" conducted by organ transplant coordinators. When I finished the second article, which I found fascinating, I was both glad that I now have the time to read literature of this nature cover to cover and worried that reading this article so close to my bedtime might lead to coma nightmares. I don't think i'd normally get worked up about having nightmares but as a PCV I am required to take malaria pills. A side effect of this medication happens to be vivid dreams and, on the flip-side, very vivid nightmares. The last thing I wanted was to find myself locked in a comatose nightmare- the kind where you are paralyzed, held prisoner in your immobile body but can think and hear and sense- a-la The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. With this on my mind I decided it best to end the night on a lighter note and read the last article- the one on Nepal- before tucking in for the night.

This morning when I woke up I was pleased to remember that in fact I did not dream about becoming a vegetable but eating them instead. I dreamt of a Thanksgiving feast fit for a Queen- of course prepared by the best chef I know- my mom. There were four tables of food all adorned with three tiered silver serving platters. Platters filled with all foods imaginable. Everything was so vivid (thanks malaria meds) I could smell the food and see the steam rising from the heated plates. Twenty types of various salads with ingredients such as asparagus, tomato, buffalo mozzarella, barley and parsley, dried cranberries, pinenuts, eggplant, zucchini... There was stuffing and roasted vegetable pizza (? not standard thanksgiving fare but i'll take it) and corn bread and turkey so juicy it dripped when carved. There was food I had never heard of before, artichoke bread and giraffes meat (I don't know what my brain was thinking). And the dessert table, oh my, the dessert table was my heaven on earth, sweet potato pecan pie, chocolate cake, raspberry bars, peanut butter cookies, I could go on and on about the dessert... everything served with a scoop (or three) of ice cream. In my dream I just did laps around the tables with an empty plate because I didn't even know where to start I was so overwhelmed.

My sister Danica was there too. I remember her wrestling Nate for a piece of chocolate cake. I'm not sure why, she normally only fights for the sweet potato pecan variety...

Unfortunately, I woke up before finishing my first helping.

This year I'm looking forward to spending Thanksgiving with other Peace Corps Volunteers in the highlands of El Quiche. But there is no denying that I'm still really gonna miss Thanksgiving dinner back home- and my subconscious has made note of it. So, in place of the real thing I hope I can start my dreams tonight where I left off this morning and at least get to taste some dessert.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Week Three In Site

I’m pretty sure someone in my household saw me undress through my bedroom window. I currently live on the second floor of Seno Lili’s house and one wall has two large windows overlooking the entrance and driveway. When I first moved in I specifically asked if I should be worried about people looking into my room at night and Lili’s response was, “Oh no, its very quiet on our street at night. You don’t have to worry about that.” Yesterday, as I was preparing for a Cost of Production charla for my Cooperative, Seno Lili came up and said, “Lisa, (she calls me Lisa) the guy is here to hang the curtains can he come into your room?” Twenty minutes later I had curtains. After he left, Lili was arranging the drapes and said, “Now you won’t have to worry about anyone seeing you through your window at night...” It was all very suspicious.

In other news, my women’s soccer team won our semi-final game 3-0 on Saturday. Our team did really well although at times I felt a little like I was stuck in an AYSO all-star game. Lots of kick-ball. I managed to get a yellow card. It was a total fluke. I stole a ball from a girl mid kick which caused her to kick me instead of the ball. She then fell to the ground grabbing her leg in “pain” and “agony” and rolled around for emphasis (at least she has one move that looks just like its done in the pros). As the ref stuck his hand in his shirt pocket to grab my unwarranted foul the crowd was cheering “ROJA, ROJA, ROJA”. They wanted me to get a red. It was the first time since I’ve been in this country that I truly felt hated. My team assured me that they only wanted me to get a red card because they wanted me out of the game. I guess its understandable, the other team must be thinking, “who is this white chick and how did she just so happen to appear on the team for the semi-final game?”

After the game, as we were leaving the stadium feeling very victorious, a coach from the other semi-final game being played after ours yelled across the field, “Canche, nos vemos en el final”. Translation: “Whitey (thats me of course), we’ll see you in the final”. My team just laughed.

I would write more about some of the actual work I’m doing here- about my cost of production presentations and the english classes that I got conned teaching- but nothing extraordinarily funny or exciting has happened during either of them for me to entertain you with. This Friday I will be working with a women’s group and hopefully something will come out of that... if not, i’ll just let you know how the women’s soccer final goes on Saturday.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Futbol and Fiesta

I need to first apologize to all of you who are tiring of my posts about futbol (soccer) but thus far my life here in site has pretty much revolved around the sport. So once again this entry will too.

Not a day went by this week without rain. Hurricane turned tropical storm Ida passed through my town and kept everyone indoors for either the first or second half of every day. I was pleased to learn that rain had also canceled the woman’s soccer game the previous weekend permitting me the opportunity to play with the team in the semi-final game rescheduled for the next sunny Saturday.

On Tuesday afternoon, there was a break in the rainfall and at 3PM I went to the soccer field ready for practice. When I arrived there was a mass of people gathered at one of the cinderblock homes that surrounds the field. As I got closer I noticed a casket was at the front of the sea of people in plastic chairs and it dawned on me that I was passing through a funeral. I tried to walk past the crowd respectfully and as inconspicuously as possible but, lets be honest, thats just impossible for me to do here. So of course, as I made my way to half field everyone just stared at me. In a town of 3,000, when someone passes its very likely that about 80% of the town is either a relative or friend of the deceased and therefore, I figured just about the same percentage of my soccer team was probably sitting there in those plastic chairs. As I continued walking with all those eyes on me, I thought to myself, “what are you doing here, there is no way we have soccer practice today”. And I was right. Two minutes after I sat down under the oak tree at half field Ingrid, the team captain, came walking over in her street clothes. She didn’t even have to say anything, I got up and said, “No practice today right”. She confirmed my assumption and told me practice was rescheduled for Wednesday.

Luckily Wednesday the rain seemed to know our training schedule and didn’t come until around 6PM so we were able to get a full two hours of practice in. Thursday we weren’t so lucky. Sad but true fact: the Casas Viejas women’s soccer team is less dedicated to training than my 1st grade Mighty Marigolds AYSO team. A team for which I played “defense” but really just picked flowers on the field during games (or so my mom tells me). To demonstrate this fact: our soccer team carries about 16 players, on average 9 show up to practice. I can’t wait for our first game so I can actually meet the other half of the team. I say this without malice because I am pretty sure there is a good reason why the other girls are absent. For all I know they live 15 KM and 3 lancha rides away from the center of town and it would be absurd to expect them at every practice. OK, so back to Thursday. Knowing the commitment level of my team, I was pretty confident that any level of moisture in the air greater than Santa Rosa’s standard tropical humidity would be grounds for canceling practice. And since I could see the rain clouds moving in on my way to the field I thought Thursday’s practice would for sure be canceled. I was wrong. Imminent rainfall didn’t stop us from training, it just decreased the number of girls that showed up from the usual 9 suspects to just 5. And the rain did fall. It began during our warmup and was still falling an hour and a half later when we were taking shots on goal (the goalie was one of the five that showed up). I was utterly impressed with the girls that did come, no complaints and we didn’t even break for water (our coach said to just open our mouths instead). Despite the rain we still had about 10 townspeople watching us practice. I’m not sure if they came because they like to watch us train or just wanted to watch us get muddy and wet.

After practice our coach, Faviola, told me that the trainer, the one without his front teeth, would decide my position on Saturday. Everyone I talk to about the team asks me my position. Legit question right? And every time I have to respond with, “I don’t know yet.” I feel as if they think I'm the kid on the team that the coach doesn’t know what to do with so just sticks em in goal except the girls team already has a goalie so even that spots taken.

Saturday morning I woke up to pounding rain on my tin roof. Ida reared its ugly head again and I got word that the game was canceled. So another week until I meet the rest of the team.

For a change, Sunday was just that, very sunny. A good thing too because the Casas Viejas men’s team had a home game against the neighboring town of Casias. The entire town came out for the game, the sidelines were packed with people and papas fritas and snow cone vendors. There was even a guy walking around selling frozen jocotes for Q2 and when asked why they were so expensive he said they were “Colombiano”. Dona Arceli, whom I now familiarly call Seño Lili, and I settled into a spot right behind the play-by-play announcer who was wearing a shirt that said, “I lost my phone number. Can I have yours?” and right in front of the speakers hooked to his microphone. It was the only shady spot left and yes my ears are still ringing. The game was a true social event. I know this because I could smell cologne in the air and Seño Lili wore her hot pink strappy sandals.

During the first half of the game the most excitement came not from a play, but rather from a stray pig that ran on the field followed closely by its slightly overweight owner trying to chase it off. Luckily the second half proved to be more exciting and yielded three goals. Ten minutes into the second half Casas Viejas scored the first goal. At the exact same moment a black chucho (dog) was taking a crap right outside the 18 yard box. When the crowd cheered for the goal I wondered if the dog thought they were cheering for him. Casas Viejas scored two more goals and the other team decided to call the game 6 minutes before the official time. It was a solid victory for the town.

After the game I went to a birthday party that I had been invited to on Tuesday. The party was for a little girl named Jasmine (turning 3) that I had met along with her mother and 6 year old sister Melissa at the Coop during my site visit. Their mother (who can’t be more than 24) told me that ever since I left Casas Viejas three weeks ago Jasmine had been asking, “where is the blanquita” (a nicer way of saying gringa). I was excited to have been invited and even more excited that they were going to have not one, but two piñatas. The party was hilarious but I feel I should leave you all with a movie clip from the festivities instead of trying to describe it in writing.

Monday, November 2, 2009

First Days In Site

Last Thursday my group of 32 Peace Corps Trainees officially became Volunteers. It was the big day, Swear-in as its called, and we all bused it to the ambassador’s house for the ceremony. The ceremony was short and sweet and we were given little petit sandwiches and fudge brownies afterwards. I shoveled about 5 of the tomato basil sandwiches in three minutes flat- it was the basil that got me hooked- so unexpectedly fresh. We had but ten minutes to take some pictures in the ambassadors garden and then were ushered out of Guatemala city.

I had already moved out of my room in Alotenango so my first stop after the ceremony was Antigua. All the volunteers met up there to unwind and say our final goodbyes before we all dispersed to our respective sites throughout the country. Its a weird feeling to have spent so much time with everyone these past three months in the training process, having had my days filled with classes and activities and sharing experiences with other americans and then in just two days time to be in my site with no one who speaks english and little supervision from the Peace Corps office. I’m truly on my own but I feel entirely OK with that. Actually more than OK, I’m quite relieved and excited for what’s ahead.

On Sunday the Cooperative President and one other socio picked me up from Alotenango and we made the two hour drive to my site. Since arriving in town I’ve been settling into my new digs at Dona Arceli’s house. My room came furnished with a double size bed, a TV (i’ve been watching the World Series), a fan, a plastic table and chair. I’m gonna need to do some shopping for other basics - I have no mirror so getting ready in the morning has been a bit of a challenge. I did manage to hang my mosquito net from ceiling rafters with Peace Corps supplied dental floss and every time i look at it I feel part Macgyver part princess.

Aside from getting my room situated I have also started getting out into the town and meeting people. Today was Dia de Todos Santos which is one of the biggest holidays in Guatemala. I sat at the cooperative with Eslin and passed the afternoon watching people walk by looking their best and carrying flowers- both real and paper- to the town cemetery to decorate their deceased relative’s graves. Around three o’clock (because I was told it was going to rain at 4PM) I convinced Dona Arceli to go with me to the cemetery to check out the festivities. When we entered the cemetery full of people and Dona Arceli began to introduce me to her friends, It dawned on me just how tall I am compared to everyone here. I was looking pretty much all men in the eyes and looking over the heads of all the women. It felt good to be tall even though its one more thing to make me stand out. We continued to walk through the cemetery, passing kids sitting on cement raised graves, staring as usual, some saying “hello”, others just giggling at me. I just smile back and say “Buenas tardes”. The graveyard was full both of people and graves making it a little difficult to get through the maze. Along the route we ran into a few other associates from the cooperative - all welcomed me back, “How are you liking it here? Are you sure you don’t want to leave yet?” I get that it may be a little strange for them to have this American willingly move here to live and work with them for two years but I wonder when they are going to realize I am here with the intention of staying. At least when I reiterate, “No, I love it here, I'm in it for the whole two years”, they get excited and say, “oh good, long enough for you to get married here, and then you’ll stay”

After the cemetery we walked back to Jennifer’s house where half the town was gathered at a makeshift carnival-like stand awaiting the results of the holiday raffle. Everyone paid 3 Quetzales (approx. $.40) and the grand prize was a “chivo” or calf. Before they started the raffle they paraded the cow around the crowd and tied it to a nearby tree. It was a really nice looking cow, actually kinda cute and when Dona Arceli didn’t win I was a bit relieved cause I didn’t want there to be any chance that sometime down the road I’d have to eat it.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Santa Rosa here I come

Two thursday’s ago we got our site assignments. Our group of seven sustainable agricultural marketing volunteers received information on all potential sites while we were in Coban. It was then that we all had the opportunity to voice some of our opinions/wishes/preferences for where we would like to be placed and the type of work we wanted to do. Even before we hit this phase of training I had been dropping hints that I wanted to live in the “Oriente” or eastern part of the country. The Oriente is ladino, cowboy hat wearing, pistol slinging, cuss word talking, pure machismo territory. And, there are mango trees everywhere. The site I had my heart set on, and trust me everyone knew it, was working with a salt cooperative in Santa Rosa so it wasn’t that big of a surprise when my APCD handed me the Santa Rosa file on site assignment day.

Monday, October 12th was counterpart day and I was introduced to Toribio, my main work contact from La Cooperativa Integral de Produccion Xincas Santa Rosa. We had a day and a half of formal meetings to get us ready for the 4-5 day site visit that gives us trainees the opportunity to take a trip to our site to meet the people we will be working with, find housing and get acquainted with the area before we move-in for good after swear-in.

On Tuesday Toribio and I set off for Santa Rosa. We left the training center at 12PM and took three bus rides: Santa Lucia to Antigua to Esquintla to Chiquimulia where we grabbed a ride with an associate of the cooperative who had been in town doing some shopping. The drive was beautiful, lush green tropical expanse with palm trees and miles of sugar cane farms. When we arrived I was pleasantly surprised to find the town well kept with one main street with a few shops, some really nice homes (built with money from the states- everyone in town has either spent years working in New Jersey or has family in New Jersey- Dad, I gave a, “my dad’s from Newark” shout out to everyone that mentioned NJ) Our first stop was at the Cooperative. The coop is a small general store where you can find anything from onions to toilet paper. Its run by the associates and they have their monthly meetings there and at any given time you can find a handful them sitting on the porch chatting- probably about the heat cause its damn hot. Along with farming salt and having a tienda the coop also makes disinfectants for cleaning. My main tasks starting off will be to support them with packaging and labeling of the salt and disinfectants, getting their sanitary license, inventory practices for the store, quality control etc.

I wasn’t in site but a few hours before I felt at home. I was struck by how laid back and genuine the people were- they were all extremely excited to have me and also concerned that I wouldn’t want to stay (daily I was asked, “do you like it here? Are you sure you don’t want to leave?”) At the coop I met with the directors and when I mentioned to them I play soccer they pretty much dropped everything and took me straight over to the soccer field where the women’s soccer team was training. They introduced me to the team. The trainer, who reminds me a bit of my old club coach minus two front teeth, asked me back on Thursday to train with the team. I told them I didn’t have my cleats or shorts to play in but that id figure something out. Plus all the girls were pretty much playing in t-shirts and jean shorts (couldn't be comfortable right but funny how jeans are the exercise attire of choice for girls here) so i figured i could make do with the clothes that i brought.

Word spread fast throughout the town that I play soccer because the next three days anytime I was sitting on the porch of the coop strangers would come up to me and talk shop about soccer, about the towns trainer, about the USA women’s team... one older guy came up to me and asked my shoe size and offered to let me borrow his cleats for practice. Everyone had such high expectations that I started to get nervous that when I got out there to play I would disappoint them. On Thursday I went with two associates into Chiquimulia for market day and also took the opportunity to buy cleats and shorts for Q75 or $9. When I got to practice about 30 people from the town were there to watch. We did a good two hours of sprints and scrimmaged sharing the patchy field with pigs, ducks, dogs and chickens.

The next day at the Coop the same guy that offered me his shoes came by and told me that i have a good foot, that I can shoot the ball well, that my face turned really red when i was playing and that the team needs to practice headers. He was really insistent about the headers. Then he proceeded to tell me that women shouldn’t play soccer when they are menstruating because it may cause hemorrhaging. I told him that was crazy and I’d never heard of women having that problem and he said thats because there are special doctors in the states that take care of it.

Later in the day the Cooperative had a meeting to discuss my role and their expectations of my work with them. The Alcalde (mayor) even stopped by to meet me. He showed up in jeans, a t-shirt and flip-flops with an mp3 player and headphones around his neck. When I told him I was coming back on November 1st to move-in for good his response was, “But the women’s team semi-final is on the 31st, can’t you come earlier?”

Yep. Pretty much love this place.

My new family

Main Street Casas Viejas

Photos from my site visit

One of my the cooperative socios at the Salina (salt harvest starts in two weeks), On a lancha with Sulma on the way to Las Lisas, Las Lisas beach and turtle project.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Total Eclipse

Somehow while I was in Coban Eswin discovered and then fell in love with Bonny Taylor. I believe i’ve mentioned my host family is evangelical and thus, the only thing I have heard come from the speakers of their boombox (cause it is a boombox) since I arrived here two months ago, is either Spanish Christian pop music or the broadcast of Alotenango’s daily Evangelical mass/culto (into which, by the way, Silvia once called and the DJ dedicated a Christian Pop song to Analuisa Cojolon <-- that’s me). So you could imagine my surprise when, while sitting in the courtyard learning subjunctive with my spanish class, the sound of “Total Eclipse of the Heart” came floating over to delight my ears. The familiar tune came from the kitchen table where Eswin was working on his drawing homework (btw* they take straight lines very seriously here in Guatemala. The kids may not own markers but be damned if they don’t have a straight edge ruler hanging predominantly somewhere in the house). When the song ended, one minute later it started up again, and then it played again, and again, and again, until i think I had heard the song more times than it was played on KIIS FM in the 90s. When our class broke for a refacción (snack) I walked on over to Eswin to see what was going on with the “Eclipse” on repeat and as I neared i realized the song was coming from his JC phone. I call it his JC phone because his phone’s background wallpaper is a picture of Jesus kneeling on a mountainside. I don’t know who introduced him to this song or when or how he downloaded it to his cell phone and I really don’t care. I’m just happy its there. And to show my appreciation at lunch (after Eswin had played the song so many times I had it committed to memory) I performed a little lip-sync and dance number to it for Dona Paula while she was in the kitchen reheating some Pepian on the stove.

That night while laying in bed with “once upon a time i was falling in love” still twirling on the tip of my tongue I was forced back to reality by the ever present sound of Culto on loudspeaker. The Evangelical church is about 2 blocks away yet the penetrative clarity of that loudspeaker makes it sound like the preacher is giving mass at the foot of my bed. I have come to believe this is one of the reasons why so many Guatemalans are converting to Evangelicalism. You don’t actually have to be a part of the church to hear the sermon. Its quite genius actually. One night I walked by said church; lights on, megaphone at full blast, music playing, sounds of clapping, so much enthusiasm oozing out of the place you’d think the entire town of Alotenango was packed between the four walls of that church. However, when I peered into the open doors I was shocked to see the preacher with microphone in hand whole heartedly preaching to a whopping fifteen or so odd people in white plastic chairs at the front of the church and the remaining 9/10ths of the building was just an empty sea of red cement floor. Those cement floors make for stellar acoustics. Seeing the reality of Culto made me wonder if that loudspeaker is really necessary. Cause I’m pretty sure God can still hear them without the megaphone. But then maybe that is why there are only 15 people at the church, cause the rest of the congrigation is just listening to the mass like me, from the comfort of their beds.

*mom and dad, btw stands for by the way


Tuesday, September 29, 2009


Last week we had field based training aka FBT. This is the part of training where we go out to a more remote part of Guatemala to stay in a village where volunteers currently live and work to get a feel for what life will be like when we move to our sites. All three training groups went to different places- Food Security went to Jalapa, Municipal Development went to Huehuetenango and my group, Agricultural Marketing, went to Coban. Coban is a small city about 3 hours north of Guatemala city. Google map it. We were up there visiting an aldea of the city where a volunteer works at a rural tea cooperative run by Q’eqchi Mayans called Te Chirrepeco.

We arrived at the cooperative in the dark of Sunday night and all 7 volunteers crowded into the Te Cherrepeco office and drew host family names out of a bowl- a lottery of sorts to determine which family we would be living with for the week. I drew Gerardo Bac and off I went with Gerardo to find his house in the dark hills of the expansive co-op. When I arrived I was greeted by the entire family: the mother Lucia, four daughters: Blanca, Olivia, Maria, Elvira and her daughter Haiti, one son Ramon (the others live in the city), his wife (whose name has at present escaped me and it was quite rare so I don’t think its coming back soon), their newborn daughter Bianca and about five dogs and two puppies. One of the puppies was named chucho but they didn’t have a name for the other so I named him Lefty because his front left leg is white whereas all the rest are brown. The family liked the name and started calling him by it.

The rest of the week proved to be an exhausting one. I would wake up at 6 and take a warm bucket bath with heated water from the wood burning stove where breakfast was being prepared. The water had a rustic smokey scent that surprisingly was quite comforting. After a breakfast of eggs, salsa and tortillas (the biggest tortillas i’ve ever seen) I would walk 45 minutes through acres upon acres of lush green tea fields with Maria until we arrived at the Cooperative’s main building to meet up with the other volunteers for the day. Throughout the week we took a tour of the Tea Co-op, gave training to associates at a local coffee cooperative and visited an organic candle making operation. We also had an afternoon with Anacafe, the leading authority on coffee classification and certification in Guatemala, that consisted of a lesson on cupping and classifying coffee quality (surprisingly similar to wine tasting) and a field trip the their experimental coffee finca/plantation.

On the third morning, as I was packing up my backpack for the day, I noticed a huge cockroach sized beetle struggling on its back (visualize an upside-down turtle) on my bedroom floor. I had never seen such a strange bug so I took a few pictures of it and then showed the fam who thought it both hilarious that I would take pictures of bugs and fascinating that my camera’s zoom function could magnify it so much. Then Maria asked if she could enter my room and without a peep swept the bug onto the front lawn and crushed it with her shoe. I asked what the bug was called and she said “Ronron” which could be the spanish or Q’eqchi translation because the family speaks both. And then she said, ”para la cena” or “for dinner” and chuckled a little.

That day we visited a few businesses, two micro-finance/credit and loan companies and one governmental training office. All three are potential resources for our future work in the field. We arrived back at the tea co-op around 6pm and after downing my nightly cup of tea I chatted with the girls in the outdoor kitchen (dirt floors, walls made of large branches, laminate ceiling, complete awesomeness) until dinnertime. Conversing with the family was always entertaining because there were translations being thrown around all over the place. Lucia, the mother didn’t speak much Spanish so everything between us was getting translated. Luckily, Ramon’s wife is Poqomchi Mayan and is just now learning Q’eqchi so I wasn’t the only one needing the translations. From Spanish to Q’eqchi, from Q’eqchi to Spanish, and even sometimes from Spanish to English to Spanish to Q’eqchi when they were asking how to say English words like “shoe” “good morning” and “nice to meet you” which sounded a bit like “nycechomeecho”.

We were all chatting and laughing as Lucia and Maria made tortillas over the stove and Olivia, Elvira and Blanca husked corn on a long wood bench, when all of the sudden a huge bug fell from the ceiling onto Elvira’s foot. She violently shook her foot and the bug flew into the air and landed on the floor in front of my feet. It was a dark red and black hairy caterpillar-like bug that gathered itself and began to slowly crawl along the dirt floor. Blanca came over with a kernel-less corn cob and speared the bug with the tip. The process made me squirm a bit but when she looked up at me I said, “otro ronron para la cena? Vamos a comer buenisimo esta noche” “Another bug for dinner? We are gonna eat well tonight.” Laughing, Blanca threw the dead bug into the flames under the stove.

The next day we were chatting in the kitchen as usual when out of no where came scurrying a black skinny runt of a puppy that I had never seen before. He ran through the legs of my chair and hid under the kitchen table. As I mentioned earlier, there are plenty dogs in the house. The majority of which would chase and bark at me whenever I pass the kitchen or walk to the back outhouse. This caused some issues early on because in the middle of the first night I woke up and had to use the outhouse but I was A.) worried that the dogs would violently bark at me and wake up the rest of the house and B.) scared that i’d get bit and have to rush back to Santa Lucia to get rabies shots (standard procedure for any mammal bite). With all this in mind, that first night I just held it in until daybreak which i’ll admit was unpleasant. Wanting to avoid further unnecessary pain, the next day I asked for a “palo” or stick to use to scare away the dogs at night (all dogs here, even street dogs, have an innate fear of sticks, its great). So the family armed me with a broom stick, nice and thick and very frightening. The rest of the week I walked around the house with my palo, even after the dogs became accustomed to me, because the family insisted I keep it on me at all times (they thought it was hilarious). Whenever I was without it they’d ask me, “Annalisa, donde esta tu palo?” “Where is your stick?”

So back to the random dog in the kitchen. It was extremely frail and evidently undernourished. I was shocked to see this strange dog just chilling in their kitchen so I asked where it had come from. Maria translated the question for her mother and from what I could gather from her facial expressions Lucia must have said something along the lines of “I have no idea” in Q’eqchi. So jokingly Maria said, “It just fell from the ceiling like a bug.” She then threw the scrawny dog a hardened tortilla. As the three puppies fought for the food I announced that this new addition to the household was in need of a name. Maria asked me what we should we name it, and I said “Ron-ron.”

The fate of that dog is still TBD. I don’t know if the family will proactively adopt Ronron into their already full-house or just leave him be in the kitchen eating scraps and see what happens. All I know is he was still scrounging for food the morning I left the Tea Co-op. The family did invite me back for Christmas (and has already called my cell phone three times to check in on me) so I’m sure I’ll be back for a visit and when I do go I’ll let you all know if Ronron is still there. The dog that is, not the bug.

Bac Family Album

Bac Family, Haiti, Lefty, Ramon's wife tortillando and the ronron...


Coffee Plantation, Tea Co-op, Giving Charlas etc.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Independence Day Addendum

I realized I forgot to mention two very important independence day festivities in my last blog post and felt it necessary to fill you in. Both activities take place in every towns main plaza and both involve pig fat. Men in town are challenged to first climb to the top of a flag pole greased with pig fat. The first to reach the top wins money- anywhere from 300 to 1000 Quetzales (equal to 40-120 dollars). In the second competition the men chase around a pig greased in pig fat (if only the pig knew right?) and whoever catches the pig gets another nominal prize. The day after independence day I came to find out that after three hours worth of attemps not one person from Alotenango successfully climbed the pole to win that game and the guy who was able to ¨capture the pig¨ broke his two front teeth in the process. Sadly, I don´t think the $40 he won will be enough to cover his dental expenses.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Feriado aka Independence Day

September 15th is Guatemalan Independence Day. Although its technically a holiday, Guatemalans celebrate it as a holimonth. Starting September 1st the national flag began to appear everywhere. Schools put on cultural performances and began organizing events and band practices. Eswen is in his school band so I had the pleasure of passing by his band practice in the street outside of his school on a few occasions and embarrassing him with attention.

The few days leading up to independence day La Torcha began. La Torcha is a Guatemalan pastime where people from all over the country run from town to town carrying torches a la the olympics. On numerous occasions I asked people about the origin of or reason for this activity and the best response I got was that it represents liberty. After some more questioning I came to realize a few things about La Torcha 1.) there is no particular path or pilgrimage with the torch. Guatemalans start running wherever they want to start and end wherever they want to end. Esquintla to Alotenango, Solola to HueHue, Ciudad Vieja to Aguas Calientes. Any route is fare game. 2.) There is a trick to La Torcha. The torch carriers have an entourage usually following 50 meters behind in a pick-up (or camioneta/bus if its an entire school of torch runners). The torch runners typically only run through the center of towns they pass and when they get to a stretch of highway they get in the car or bus and drive to the next town. Giving the perception that they are running long distances but actually aren’t. There are some faithfuls that run the whole way or that have a relay of sorts with their reserves in the truck that switch off running with the torch. 3.) Those citizens who don’t particularly like to run or choose not to participate will line the main streets where La Torcha passes and throw water on the runners. Silvia told me its to try to put out the Torch. This seems a little ironic, if the torch symbolizes liberty, why would anyone want to extinguish it? Whatever, I’ll go along with it anyway.

On the 14th we had classes in Santa Lucia but had to get a ride back in a minibus because all the camionetas had been rented out for La Torcha. The traffic was insane and all along the route we saw hundreds of torch runners on the highway, soaking wet, blowing whistles and having the time of their lives. A few times our bus was also the target of water balloons and hoses.

In the evening I went with my family to the Alotenango plaza to watch Eswen perform in the band. The Alcalde was giving a speech and everyone congregated around the high schoolers waiting for the performance. I tried to keep as low of a profile in the crowd as possible. PCs have been warned that sometimes if we are spotted in the audience of a ceremony out of nowhere the person with the mic will say, “Let the Gringo talk” and an impromptu speech by the volunteer is expected. I preferred to avoid the extra attention so I hid behind a tree (although I did recite what i’d say in my mind just in case). The Alcalde’s (governor) speech was a bit long winded, so much so that the band struck up in song before he ended and he was fighting to be heard for about two minutes until he gave up and let the band take the spotlight. After one song the Alcalde got back on the mic and started saying something about not playing with fire and before I knew it there was a highschooler in a metal pyrotechnic cow apparatus in the middle of the street letting of flares that exploded into the crowd and rained sparks all over the place. Not sure if it was all that safe but everyone seemed to be enjoying the show. After the performance I went back to the house in Don Miguel’s pick-up. I actually rode in the front with him cause I was worried people might still be throwing water. On the ride back he asked me if I liked his car. I of course replied yes and he said, “look all the lights on my dashboard work”. Its amazing how much small luxuries can be the foundations of great pride here.

On the 15th all the kids woke up early to get ready for the big town parade. Every child in Alotenango (all 8,000 or so of them) participate in this parade with their respective school. So by the time I got up Silvia, Lidia and Eswen had already left the house. Since the 15th is Independence day PC volunteers get the day off so I was able to participate in some of the festivities. I woke up late, did a load of laundry in the pila, ate bread and homemade strawberry jam and chatted it up with Dona Paula. Quick note, almost all of our conversations turn to marriage. Usually she asks me when I’m going to get married but on this particular occasion she began telling me about marriage here in Guatemala. It struck me how matter-of-fact she told me that married men often take mistresses. But sometimes it can get expensive to have to give monthly payments to a wife and kids and support a mistress so a lot of times the men will go to their wives and ask for forgiveness and if the woman is a good wife (yes, GOOD wife) she will take him back. Sometimes women are “strict” and don’t take their men back and then they have to live on the streets but if a wife is good woman she’ll take him back. What does one say to this? I mentioned how in the States it isn’t uncommon for married people to separate if they fall out of love and then they may remarry and form new families. Her response to that was that divorce isn’t very popular here.

At 10 Dona Paula and I walked up to the gasolinera vieja (old gas station) to watch Eswen and Lidia and Silvia pass with their schools. It was adorable watching all the youngsters walk by - each school with their own theme. One class held global warming signs which was a huge surprise to me, another represented national symbols such as the Quetzal (national bird), Monja Blanca (national flower), Cieba (national tree), Others wore traditional clothing, there were bands and more bands and princesses... Finally Lidia walked by dressed in basketball gear- her school was representing all the sports of Guatemala and Eswen passed by with his band. When Silvia walked by she urged me to join the procession with her students so I jumped in and started walking down with 40 darling kids dressed in central american clothing. At the end of the parade some of the kids parents asked if they could get a picture of their kids with “the gringa” and then the photo ops began. Its interesting how amazed people are with white people. So I posed for a few pictures and then walked home with a very tired Silvia (she had to walk the entire parade in high heels) to rest and eat lunch.

Below are a few more pics of the parade.

Independence Day

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Las Camionetas

All volunteers spent Labor Day exploring the capitol, Guatemala City. We made the venture because the Peace Corps deems three locations imperative to know: the US embassy, the hospital and Tikal Futura, a shopping mall slash hotel slash concert and convention venue where there is a Payless Shoe Source, a food court and an entire level dedicated to sporting goods shops, one of which specializes in tennis rackets (my spanish teacher thinks the biz is a little fishy cause, lets be honest, how many Guatemalans really play tennis?) The Peace Corps likes this mall because its one of the places in the city where its safe to call a taxi.

The trip into Guate wasn’t anything overwhelmingly exciting although I did treat myself to a double scoop ice cream cone that tasted like heaven in my mouth. Besides the magically refreshing helado, I found the bus ride the most exciting part of the trip. I have grown to love the camionetas here. The buses are retrofitted american school buses painted funky colors on the outside and decorated inside to the driver’s (or as the are called in spanish chauffeur's) liking. Unfortunately, one rarely can enjoy the interior decor because there seems to be no limit to the number of people that can be crammed in these buses. In fact, on this very day, Shaila and I opted to pass on a ride from a camioneta that had people hanging out the side. Literally, three men flailing and clawing for dear life while holding on to some indiscernible pegs or handles or railings outside of the front side door of the bus. Now imagine what the inside of that bus musta looked like. Brings a whole new meaning to the word packed. Every bus ride is an adventure in itself because everyone is crammed three to a seat, the chauffeur drives like a 16-year-old boy in his dads BMW, and the roads are bumpy, hilly and windy. The windiness is key here. It can get so swervey that my friends and I have begun playing a game called “grab-the-oh-shit-bar” on certain stretches of highway. You know those teacups at Disneyland that you spin and spin until you feel like your cheeks will permanently be windblown to one side of your face. Thats the extent of the g-force felt on the bus rides. So you get the picture. Now, it may be hard to believe but, the ride itself isn’t the best part- the people are. I’ve never experienced a better location for people watching. And since everyone is so close, like on each others laps and butts-in-your-face close, its almost impossible not to eaves drop on peoples conversations. My favorites are always the ones involving twenty something guys picking up on eighteen year old school girls in uniforms,

Boy: “Whats you’re name”
Girl: “Lucia”
Boy: “Thats my favorite name, no kidding, I’ve always said when I have a baby girl I’m going to name her Lucia etc. How old are you etc. Can I get your phone number etc. etc.”
I must admit although entertaining, I kinda got upset about overhearing this convo because Lucia is one of MY favorite names and now its tarnished.

I was too quick to judge camioneta crushes because before I knew it, I was experiencing one myself. Moments after internally rolling my eyes at the above conversation, at the Jocotenango stop, on walked the most beautiful Guatemalan God I’d seen since stepping foot in this country. Tall, dark and perfect. At this very instant I thought to myself, “so this is what my dad was worried about” (refer back to my first post re: taking a Guatemalan back to The States). I blushed while this beautiful specimen got on the bus and quickly turned to Shaila who was sitting two rows back and motioned to her to check him out. She gave me the smile and nod of full approval. Eight minutes later my Guatemalan David got off the bus at the Antigua stop. No words were exchanged, just a few looks and I doubt i'll ever see him again. However, now I am particularly attentive at the Jocotenango stop.

A Few More Photos

Shaila and me at our Gym, A few PCV's out in Antigua watching American Footbal and the US v. El Salvador soccer game (go USA), Church in Pastores and Spike and Keiser (just for you Doug)- Spike is the lighter colored one.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

My House in Alotenago

Here are a few pics of my house- The courtyard, the pila... will try to post more later.

¡Que Rico!

About a week after we arrived in Guatemala and a few days after settling into our three month stint in Alotenango we were informed that during training we would be working with local artisans to help them sell their products. The artisan group is a formal association comprised of about 30 craftsmen and women whose specialties range from candle making to weaving to cooking dulces tipicos (local sweets) to whittling wooden owls (that look eerily similar to the ones my dad puts on our dock in California to keep the ducks away). For the last few weeks we have been meeting with the artisan group to get a feel for how we can support them. It has been eye opening to see what they struggle with, keeping invoices, looking for new markets, researching competition, counting their own labor as a part of their cost of production etc. This past week we went around and began visiting the artisans in their homes or shops to build good report and see their products first hand.

Shaila and I had the opportunity to meet up with Don Luis at his house where he weaves everything from pillow cases to large blankets. When we arrived he greeted us with his adorable pint size wife and their youngest of five sons Wilber (age 11). They sat us on their porch and we began chatting about their products and Don Luis showed us pictures of some of the rugs and hammocks he had woven and brought out some samples of pillow cases and table runners (don’t worry mom, already thinking xmas gifts) that he had woven and napkin holders his wife had hand made. We talked and talked... about the weather, about the volcanos, about US immigration (Shaila’s favorite topic), about airport security in the states. One thing led to another and before we knew it we were off the porch and in the garden where Luis and his family were pulling tangerines, jocotes, nispero (loquat) off their trees left and right and handing them to us to eat. Most of what was handed to me i’d never heard of or seen before but I just put it in my mouth and complimented Don Luis on how delicious it was “Que rico!” as juices ran down my chin. At one point I did turn to Shaila and ask if it was kosher to be eating right off the trees without washing the fruit- she shrugged an “uh, sure” so we continued to munch away. We were finishing up a handful of nisperos when Don Luis pointed out his sugar cane growing near a fence and I was naive enough to say, “I’ve never tried sugar cane before.” This of course triggered a, “Wilber get the machete” Wilber ran back into the house and before we knew it Don Luis was chopping down a stalk of sugar cane with his machete, peeling off the outer bark and breaking the stalk into portions for us all to begin gnawing on. We all stood around a pile of the bark debris, talked as we chewed on the sugar cane (more juices running down my chin) and spit out the fibers like a bunch of pura Chapinas. I learned that it took a year to grow the sugar cane and, apparently when hosting two gringas, only minutes to chop it down. Don Luis’ hospitality is not uncommon here in Guatemala and we spent about two hours just shooting the shit. There is a saying that my spanish teacher uses: American’s think time is money, Guatemalans think time is life. This couldn’t be more true.

After promising a second visit to his house, including a soccer match with all five sons, we parted ways with Don Luis and headed to another artisan’s house, Dona Mercedes’, were we were to taste her dulces tipicos. Another chat on the porch, this time with all four of us Alotenango volunteers, more sharing of food- this time honeyed yams and sweetened figs, more “Muy ricos!” and more promises to visit again. By the time we were finished with our rounds my shirt was stained with at least three different colored juices and my stomach was fully satisfied. Just in time for lunch.

Later that afternoon Shaila and I made a trip to the gym then ran home to change for a fiesta. Amanda’s host mother had invited all of the volunteers and our host families to a joint birthday party in honor of her 28-year and 22-year-old sons’ and 90-year-old mother-in-law. This would be my second birthday party in Guatemala and I was so excited to have something fun to do on a Friday night that I actually blow dried my hair for the occasion (only after asking Lidia if the electric system could handle it). I wasn’t the only one to go to great lengths to prepare for the event. Don Miguel had washed the family’s red Nissan pickup and parked it outside for the journey across town (which we normally just walked). Shaila ended up coming over to go to the party with my family because hers had prior commitments. At 7:30 Don Miguel closed the molino business for the night and we all piled into the pick-up. Eswen, wearing his “Relax, I’m a massage therapist” shirt, was ordained the chauffeur. Most hopped into the cab but Silvia and I sat in the bed, ok, so I sat in the bed and Silvia stood up holding the support bars like the “king of the world” as we rode a half mile to Dona Ana and Don Manuel’s house. When we entered the house there were about 50 white plastic chairs set up in the courtyard/driveway and my family immediately took their seats. Shaila and I decided to look for Amanda and Pati. We found them upstairs (the house is a two story palace by my Guatemala standards) with Melanie, a Peace Corps volunteer that had done her training in Alotenango and keeps in touch with Dona Ana’s family. Melanie told us that the white chairs were set up for the bible study of sorts that would take place before we say our happy birthdays and dive into the tamales and coffee. And sure enough, thirty minutes later we were all sitting in the white chairs listening to an energetic woman preach, “God here are my hands, here are my feet, here is my body” I looked around and noticed girls across the isle painting each others fingernails pink. The woman continued, “the worst thing you could do is have doubt, don’t doubt because with god everything is possible”, The guy in front of me was nodding his head and listening intensely as the woman sitting to his left was cradling and bouncing a 40 day old baby on her lap. About 20 minutes into the preaching it hit me that I was starting to get hungry. I thought to myself, “Maybe I should have eaten a little something, something before leaving my house”. The sermon continued but the woman stopped talking and instead put some christian music on (which my family knew all the words to thank you very much). Shaila got up to go to the bathroom and didn’t come back. My stomach started to growl. After three songs it was back to the preaching and this time the woman asked if anyone wanted to stand up and say something, “any youngsters, or teenagers”, but not a soul stirred. “Thats ok” she said, “just remember that if you have something to say to God, you should say it, life is short, very short...” And I was thinking, “tell that to the woman in the front row turning 90”. The preaching continued for another 15 minutes and after everyone said their last amens I got up and walked over to where Shaila and Amanda were helping Dona Ana unwrap tamales and put them all on styrofoam plates with a fork and bread. When in doubt, help in the kitchen right? We set up an assembly line and as I unwrapped tamales I was sizing each of them up, literally, I wanted to find the biggest one to save for myself. We kept unwrapping and I kept choosing “my” tamale, only to see it swept up from under my nose and trotted off to some awaiting lap over in the mass of people in white chairs. After unwrapping a good 75 tamales we were rewarded with our own plate and I told Dona Ana that I would prefer a shovel to a fork cause the tamales were “tan ricos!” I could eat ten of them. I ended up scarfing down two- they were heaven in my mouth. Shortly after we finished our tamales and cafe my family said it was time to leave so we all piled back into the pick-up. This time Shaila opted to take the adventure in the back with Silvia and me and at 10PM we bounced along back home.

When we pulled into the driveway Eswen had to back the truck into the driveway. Don Miguel threw our dog Spike into the bed of the truck then directed Eswen into the spot. It took 5 minutes but everyone stayed in the car, even Silvia kept standing in the bed of the truck as he maneuvered back and forth, straightened up and backed into the spot. When the car was finally parked, everyone jumped out of the truck but Spike who was stuck cause he was afraid to jump over the side. I said my goodnights as Spike was wagging and whimpering trying to find a way out of the truck. I asked if anyone was going to help him out and as they walked away Lidia said, “In the morning” and everyone went to bed. All night long Spike joined in the standard neighborhood barkfest from the bed of the red Nissan truck.