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”.