Tuesday, August 25, 2009


It was a sad day last saturday when I left Dona Brenda and the rest of my Santa Lucia family for my permanent training site in Alotenango, just a 15 minute bus ride from Antigua. Luckily, I found my new host family to be just as welcoming as the first and for the past week or so I have been settling nicely into my new diggs here where I will be located for the next three months. The town is nestled between two volcanos- Volcan de Agua and Volcan del Fuego. These two huge mountains make for a very picturesque vista at any turn here in town. The best part is that Volcan del Fuego (translation: Fire Volcano) is still active and about once a day it proudly reminds us all of this fact. I’ll be in bed at night listening to an orchestra of dogs barking and roosters crowing when all the sudden a huge explosion cuts through the noise and all falls silent but this continuous thunderous echo. It honestly sounds like the town is being bombed in an air raid, which scares me silly until I realize its just el Fuego again and then I proceed to run outside to catch sight of red gewey lava spilling from the cap and drizzling down the side of the mountain. In daylight, when the volcano groans, smoke billows from the mountain top- another site to see. I live in this town with four other volunteers. All girls, all from California (over 1/3 of the 33 volunteers I am down here with are from California). Amanda, Pati (Trisha) and Shaila- Its a good thing they are all great peeps cause we pretty much spend all of our time together. Shaila and I live around the corner from one another on one side of town and we are pretty much inseperable- probably because Shaila needs the help of my stellar navigational skills in order to find her way home (her abuelita found her confused and disoriented down the street the only time she had to walk home without me). Amanda and Pati live on the opposite side about 10 minutes walking distance.

My family here in Alotenango is almost opposite in character from my family in Santa Lucia but are equally as hospitable and welcoming. My host mother Dona Paula (she does go by Dona) makes handmade tortillas over a wood burning stove everyday for lunch and dinner and her smile is so big it swallows us all in happiness. Don Miguel is a true jack of all trades. He has six businesses: 1. As a farmer- he owns three parcels of land in the outlying area of town where he grows coffee, corn, squash and other veggies, 2. he also runs a neighborhood molino (corn crushing machine to make meal for tortillas) out of the front of the house, 3. fixes molinos, 4. sells pepsi, 5. transports lava dirt to make cement blocks and 6. runs a papas fritas (french fry) stand out of the garage/driveway at night. The man is always working... and of course everyone in the family helps out with the businesses. Eswen, the only son, is 15 years old and is quite the flirt- he is also the one who puts bandaids on his zits and wears a shirt that says “RELAX i’m a massage therapist”. Pretty smooth. I’m thankful to have him though, because he likes soccer as much as I do so we bond over poppyfoot. Silvia is the oldest child at 21- she is a sweetheart and works at a local school teaching kids how to cook and sew and as the eldest, it is her duty to talk about boys with me. Lidia is the baby of the family, she is turning 11 on Tuesday. I don’t know what i’d do with out here cause she isn’t afraid to correct me whenever i say something wrong in Spanish which has helped me tremendously throughout this learning process. I guess it goes both ways because I’ve been helping her with her English homework. Oh, and I can’t forget the abuelitos (grandparents) who appear and disappear from the house so often that i feel like i should start looking for trap doors and secret passageways.

So, the first day I met my family was all a bit awkward. I was pretty much dropped on their doorstep and we kinda all looked at each other like “alright, i guess this is it”. That afternoon they had prepared lunch which they set up for me and Eswen and Lidia at a small table by the open kitchen. As I ate with the two youngest kids everyone else hung around and watched and talked. I’m sure they were intreiged to see this gringa eat and of course I didn’t fail to entertain them. Five minutes into the meal with a slip of my fork I splattered rice all over my lap to which Don Miguel cheered and yelled “Pura Chapina” (Pure Guatemalan) and laughed, a laugh I now know very well that ends with a this classic whistle howl. Its brilliant I wish I could share it with you all. Throughout lunch there was a lot of staring and nodding and small talk. I don't remember all that we talked about but they did ask if I had brought a bible.

I later found out that the majority of my family are evangelicals which then explained the Spanish Christian pop music that the kids love to listen to ALL day long and the reasoning behind no TV or video games and lack of dancing. I’m happy to make do without TV but no dancing is another story. It didn’t take more than two days before I found myself singing and dancing to the Christian pop that has become the new soundtrack to my life. I’m pretty sure the family is more entertained than threatened by my performances. Which was confirmed when no one was looking and Eswen pulled out a few Michael Jackson signature moves from nowhere. Ah, this is all magical. I love it.

Training has also been going well. We have spanish class every day but Sunday, about three technical training sessions a week and one huge group training day on Tuesdays in Santa Lucia with all 33 volunteers. This week we found out that us Alotenango girls will be working with the local Tourism Office over the next few months to help them market local artisan crafts to tourists going to visit the Volcan de Fuego. We are all excited about this project and can’t wait to get started. It should be great practice for what to expect when we go out to our sites and have to do the process on our own.

Just in case you were wondering, the address to the right is my mailing address for at least the next three months so if you feel a desire to write a letter or burn a CD of new music or send me a package of “Just Mango” slices from Trader Joes (Dad), feel free :)

Flor's Birthday Party Saturday 8/22


Wednesday, August 19, 2009

A Few Minor Adjustments

I arrived in Guatemala about four days ago and let me tell you, every day is its very own special learning experience. The Peace Corps training staff does their best to prepare us during training sessions. Fresh off the plane they even gave us a cheat sheet (not condoms- sorry dad I was mistaken) for our first night with our Santa Lucia host family (we stayed there for three nights before moving to our three month host family): Do not walk around after sunset unless accompanied by a family member, women are not allowed outside the house alone, never drink the tap water or use it to brush your teeth- instead use “agua pura” (purified water), use Don and Dona when addressing the heads of the households, etc. That first night I arrived armed with these cultural notes and called my host mother “Dona Brenda” and she replied, “Don’t call me Dona”. So I quickly learned that although the Peace Corps may have its rules to live by, I’m gonna have to get comfortable with learning through first hand experiences. And since the past few days has been chalk full of these fun learnings I thought I’d share a few with you guys.

Almost everything in Guatemala is done differently. There are three types of handshakes- depending on whether you’re a male or female and if the person receiving the shake is a male or female (males shake, males and females tap each others shoulders and females shake upper wrists and sometimes kiss cheeks) and after a meal you say “muchas gracias” and everyone at the table says “buen provecho”. Some of my favorite learnings have had to deal with bathroom etiquette. Starting with not being able to flush toilet paper- it goes in the waste bin next to the toilet.

I have come to really fear and appreciate bathrooms and all the utilities one may or may not find inside of them. When my roommate Kiera and I got the tour of Dona-Brenda-that-goes-by-Brenda’s home I was delightfully surprised to see they had a bathroom equipped as you’d find one in the states with a sink (even though I’d still have to bring my Nalgene in with its “agua pura” to brush my teeth with), a toilet and a shower. After the tour we met the rest of the family- Violeta Flor del Cielo (Floricita) the most infectiously happy 6 year old I’ve ever met, 12 year old Alejandro or Pablo who turned out to be one hell of a Bankopoly (Guatemalan Monopoly) Banker, the oldest Ceasar (junior) also goes by Paco (If you haven’t noticed, Guatemalans have lots of names), Christian the token German volunteer also staying at the house, and their father Ceasar (senior) who this week had the night shift at the Nestle plant in Guatemala City. Getting back to the bathroom... it wasn’t until we were getting ready for bed that we got the full bathroom download. So yes, there was a sink and toilet and shower but Brenda told us the water wasn’t running that night but no fear, we could use the facilities in the morning. However, if we needed to flush there was a bucket full of water next to the shower for gravity flushing (fill the toilet bowl with water and it automatically flushes). And another plus, the shower was heated. It had an electric shower-head heater. This sounded dangerous: electric + water can’t be good right? Despite the frightening look of electric wires sprouting from the shower head and connecting to the wall electric outlet, it was actually safe and worked quite well. Brenda also taught us how to shower. Since water is scarce follow these easy steps: rinse, turn water off, lather with shampoo and soap, rinse, turn water off, apply conditioner, rinse, turn water off, dry.

Some other things have become quite obvious, like the fact that Guatemalans are kind, hospitable and warm. At night everyone goes to bed to a chorus of roosters crowing, dogs barking and churchgoers singing. Soccer can be played anywhere, for example on a field with cows or on a basketball court with two games going at the same time (which can be a little confusing when there are two balls on the court and two goalies guarding each goal). I learned that you can keep flies out of the kitchen with candles, 15 year old boys put bandaids on their zits, services in the evangelical church is called “culto” (strange but kind funny no?) and the bigger car always has the right of way... but more on all this later. I’m enclosing a few photos so you can begin to get a feel for what it is like down here.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009


I just finished up a “dry run” at packing for my trip to Guatemala. Most would think this is a bit OCD of me but you try fitting the next two years of your life into a duffel bag that weighs 50 lbs and has accumulative dimensions no greater than 62 inches. Trust me, its no easy feat. Especially since I had to purchased enough gear for an arctic expedition- minus the parka. I spent so much time at the Thousand Oaks Sports Chalet that they now know me by name. I even promised Mike in the outdoors section a post card. No Joke. Ok, so, back to packing. Today I spent a good few hours in my room shoving the Peace Corps packing list into my suitcase: sleeping bag, sleeping mat, flashlight, pocketknife, duct tape (duct tape? really? I’m still trying to imagine what I’ll need that for aside from taping up my obese duffel bag in hopes that all its contents don’t burst from its seams), agriculture boots, Nalgene water bottle (cause even the Peace Corps has its lovemarks), your favorite board game… yeah, board game- sadly I had to reason with myself and leave Sorry in my parents game drawer. Plus, how could I take a board game when that space could be used for personal necessities. Necessities like my gold flip-flops, which I’m really not planning on wearing, I’m just taking to look at. And a quart size bag full of individually wrapped Wet Ones, because towelletes could come in handy when stuck in a place with no soap, running water or toilet paper (never thought toilet paper was a luxury huh?). I must confess, nowhere on the list was a laptop but I’m taking one anyway. They say 20% of volunteers in Guatemala have wireless internet and I am not afraid to bribe myself into that demographic. Hmm, I wonder if they’ll accept Wet Ones as collateral. Now you see where my spatial capacity anxiety is coming from? As I sat wondering which of my perfumes would fit snug in my toiletry kit and be least likely to attract mosquitoes my dad popped into my room. I could tell by the look on his face that he had a purpose. He stood in my doorway and quite abruptly said, “Anna, promise me this, you’ll think long and hard, without making any irrational decisions about starting any relationships with a Guatemalan man and bringing him back with you to The States to get married. And be careful when you’re down there. The last thing you want is to contract some sort of STD,” Yes, this was all a bit awkward but entertaining nonetheless so I let him continue, “Do you need me to get you any condoms because I’d be happy to get you some to take down with you?” Coming from the man who on Mother’s Day told me, “ Anna, promise me you’ll let your mom and I meet your husband before you get married” this spiel was standard procedure. I told him that he honestly has nothing to worry about and that there is no need to send me down with condoms because they practically shower you with them as you disembark the plane. Which at the time I thought was a reassuring statement but now I think it makes it sound like I’m joining an orgy instead of the Peace Corps, which was not my intention. Regardless, I knew he needed to speak his peace and I needed to promise him that I wouldn’t do anything foolish. I guess it was reassurance enough because he walked back upstairs as I sat thinking, “If I did have to pack condoms, I guess I could shove them in my empty Nalgene.”