Sunday, December 19, 2010

Jesus Cristo

One great thing about the Peace Corps is the opportunity it affords to meet amazing people, both host country nationals and other Peace Corps volunteers. Ask any volunteer what enabled them to endure the taxing environments and situations they find themselves in over the course of two years of service, and I’d bet most would say, “the people.” I don’t know how I could have ridden this emotional roller coaster this long without my fellow volunteers. We grow together, celebrate our gains together, commiserate together and share extraordinary moments together. We are all in this together.

Our PCV crew can empathize with each other’s struggles, and because of this, it is natural for me turn to other volunteers for advice in tough situations. As you may recall, I have been troubled greatly by Adan’s loan and recently turned to a volunteer friend, Barrett Bumpas (aka B. Bump, aka Bumpas- blue shirt in the photo above), for his sound advice. His response to my dilemma, transmitted through gchat, went a little like this:

Barrett: i would write him a letter, including ethics, what jesus would do, and spell out how interest is supposed to work
 
me: i should. wwjd?
 
Barrett: threaten him with eternal damnation
 
me: see, that’s a great idea.

Some may think this is actually a ludicrous idea. But, you're wrong. It can’t be ignored that religion plays a major role in the lives of Guatemalans. Everything here is “Primero Dios” (God willing) or “Gracias a Dios” (Thanks to God). The cooperative socios are devoutly religious and often look to the bible and Jesus for guidance.

Let me give you a recent example. Last week, I was debating between whether to take a weekend trip up to Coban to visit some other volunteers or stay in my site. I wanted to see my friends, but I also felt an obligation to spend the weekend in my community. I asked around and most socios proclaimed, “Go! I’d go.” or “Life is for having fun”. But, the best response I got was from Don Edgar. I told him how I was torn and he said, “You should have told me about this a couple of days ago and I could have asked God to send me a sign. But, these things take time and now it is too late.”

“Oh no, that is too bad! Is there anything else I can do?” I replied.

“Well, God’s voice can be heard in many forms. (long pause) Tell me, have you tossed a coin?” Was his answer.

I had exhausted my efforts to convince Adan through rational thinking. It was time to turn to a higher power. I decided to sit Adan down and have a little one-on-one “come to jesus” chat. I had my speech, if you will, thought out ahead of time. I knew I couldn’t ramble off verses or talk him in biblical circles so I needed to go in with a steadfast plan. I decided to use a tactic my Dad taught me (love you papa). When I was buying my first car in Michigan I remember my Dad advised me to, “just repeat, ‘I know how much this car is worth, I’m going to pay this amount.’ Don’t let the dealer get you off topic. Repeat what you want over and over and he will concede.” I applied this “repeat” method to my current situation, reminding myself, “just repeat ‘What would Jesus do?’ Repeat it over and over and he will concede.”

It was Wednesday evening around 5pm when I invited Adan over to the wooden table in the back of the Cooperative. I was strangely nervous. I wanted this to work and I was afraid that at any moment in time I might start laughing. I am not comfortable bringing up Jesus in a work environment and, unfortunately, laughter seems to be my default response to awkward situations. I had decided that no matter what Adan’s reaction to my tactic was, I had to play the part through to the end. This was extremely important to me because I didn’t want him to think I was mocking Jesus in any way, which would never be my intention. I needed the conversation to be as sincere as I meant it. I started the chat with a smile (another tactic my Dad taught me to get rid of nerves, "It calms you and the listener," he says. He is a psychiatrist for a reason.):

“Adan, we have talked many times about your loan and I know you said that it is nonnegotiable but still this loan is causing me pain. I can’t sleep at night. I feel like I’ve come here to help the coop improve its business and this loan is stopping progress. I have spent hours thinking about what I can do to help solve this problem but couldn’t come up with anything. So, I decided to call my pastor (aka Barrett Bumpas) in the United States. I told him about the loan and how it’s making me sad and he said, “Annalisa, this is a tough situation you are in. I think the best thing for you to do is ask Adan, ‘What would Jesus do?’ So, Adan, I’m asking you know, What would Jesus do if he was in your position?”

The question hit him like a load of bricks. He widened his eyes, leaned back in his chair, gave me an awkward smile and then redirected the conversation.

Adan: You see, before you got here the cooperative had taken a Q15,000 loan out from another person who was charging Q100 interests per month. Can you believe it? Q100 per month. We couldn’t keep up that loan and we looked everywhere to find a way out. I offered to loan the money to pay off that loan and only charge Q500 interests. I was helping the cooperative.

Annalisa: Yes, but that was then and this is now. Don’t you agree that the previous loan was unjust? And now you are doing the same thing with your loan. What do you think Jesus would do?

Adan: But, when we made the deal I told them I could only give the loan if they paid me back in full because I am going to use that money for a specific reason and I need it all at once.

Annalisa: I understand, but before the coop didn’t know they would have these troubles. They didn’t know they wouldn’t be able to pay you back in a reasonable amount of time.

Adan: This is true.

(At this point I remembered I needed to get back to Jesus.)

Annalisa: Now, you have the opportunity to help the coop get out of debt. You’ve already made Q7,500. Would Jesus keep taking money?

Adan: But, this is how most people work here.

Annalisa: But, you don’t have to be “most people.” You have the opportunity to help the Coop. But, instead I feel like you are using their weaknesses for your own benefit, umm you are, how do you say....

(Here I tried to think of “you are taking advantage of the cooperative” but drew a blank.)

Adan: I’m not being conscientious?

Annalisa: Exactly. Jesus would be more conscientious.

Adan: But, no one in the coop is doing anything to help pay the loan back or look for another solution. No one has done any work.

Annalisa: Neither have you. (Smiling) If you wanted to help the coop you could go look for another lender. Why haven’t you gone and done any research? It’s as much your fault as theirs that nothing has gotten accomplished.

Adan: But, we need to do it in a group.

(This is a common belief here- everything has to be done in a group. No one can do anything independently. This infuriates me, but I keep my smile.)

Annalisa: Why do you need to do it in a group? If you want to get something done you have the power to do it. When I want to do something, I do it. I didn’t need a group of people to come with me to talk to you about your loan. I wanted to do it and now we are here talking about your loan. (Internal thought, ‘less me, more Jesus, Anna.’) Jesus did things on his own. You have the power to make this right...

At that moment Alfonso showed up on his moto and broke up our conversation. I could tell Adan was relieved.

I have yet to see any signs that bringing Jesus into the loan discussion has helped the situation. But, like Don Edgar says, “these things take time.”

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Getting to Know Nancy

My life in Guatemala has become much more light hearted and humorous these past few months thanks to my new found friend, Nancy. I’m pretty sure I’ve introduced you all to her, she is the latest of the thread of replacement shop keepers. Lucky for the Cooperative, she is on her second month and staying strong. She did threaten to quit after her one month mark but I arranged an intervention and Adan, Alfonso and I managed to convince her to stay. Gracias a Dios.

I knew Nancy and I were going to get along the moment she revealed to me, “I don’t know if I want to get married. I have enough to worry about as it is, the last thing I need are in-laws.” She goes against the Guatemalan grain. She is a breath of fresh air. Since she started working at the store, the monotony of the tienda’s retail atmosphere has vanished.

I’ll give you an example.

At the store we sell some typical produce: onions, tomatoes, potatoes, bell peppers, carrots etc. The stock doesn’t always fly off the shelves so we are constantly looking for ways to keep the produce fresh for as long as possible. Our most recent salvaging act was performed on a handful of wilting, rubbery carrots. I showed Nancy how to maintain the veggies fresh by sticking them in water and refrigerating (a trick I stole from my mom- love you mom- also works great with celery). Nancy filled a little plastic bowl with water, placed the carrots in the bowl stems up. Then she turned to me before placing the bowl in the fridge. The following exchange ensued:

Nancy: “Do we cut the greens off?”

Annalisa: “I don’t know, what do you think?”

Nancy: “What do you think?”

Annalisa: “I want to know what you think will look better.”

Nancy: (While gripping her ponytail) “Well, if you cut off all MY hair, I think it would look a little strange.”

We kept the greens on.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Love/Hate Relationship

Every first Friday of the month at 4pm in the afternoon the Cooperative has an all-member meeting. Yesterday was no exception. At 5pm (we run on “la hora Chapina” (Guatemalan time)) the members gathered in a semi circle of white plastic chairs on the dirt plot behind the tienda. Thirteen of the twenty-eight members were present. Jamie Juarez, the Coop president, gave the introduction, some other pieces of business were discussed and then Adan and Alfonso stood up to give the monthly tienda report.

I have been working with Adan on compiling this monthly report since I arrived here in Casas Viejas. Prior to my arrival those in charge of the tienda would simply report one figure during the meeting, a figure that they called “Inventory.” This number was a sum of the value of all products in the tienda, plus outstanding credit, plus the amount that was in the cash register. This was an approximate calculation of what was invested in the store at that point in time. The first problem I noticed with this figure was that they were calculating the value of their products using the selling price instead of the price at which they bought the goods. For example, if they had 10 eggs in their inventory and they paid Q.70 for each egg and charged Q1 they would calculate the product value to be Q10 instead of Q7. This was an error that took me months to explain to them. After almost a year of diligently working on improving the old style of reporting Adan and I now compile a complete report including inventory, income, expenses and earnings for the month. But I digress, we were discussing the current report... Adan was up in front of his twelve colleagues about to read off the report we had compiled over the preceding three days. But before he rambled off the figures he started with a little intro that went like this:

Adan: “Before I start I want to confess to you all that this report is not easy to do. In fact it’s a huge head-ache. Annalisa and I have worked three days on completing this work and its tough, all of the numbers give me an immense head-ache.”

Annalisa’s internal thoughts: “hahaha, damn straight I’m making your brain work.”

Adan: “But the truth is I’m learning a lot, Annalisa is teaching me useful information. I was talking with Loyda (his wife) this morning and I told her that what I am learning will help me in future work. I encourage all of you to come to the tienda and take part in what we are doing there.

Annalisa’s internal thoughts: “Awe, Adan, that is just about the best feedback I could have ever asked for.”

Adan: “Right now, I see that there is a lack of participation on the part of most associates. Alfonso and I work every night at the store, sometimes working past dinnertime, our wives are wondering where we are, and I see associates drive by on their bicycles and just waive. Just remember that in March I am no longer going to be a part of the Vigilance Committee and another person will be in charge of the tienda. Whether you like it or not, eventually more of you will need to take responsibility of the tienda.”

Annalisa’s internal thoughts: “March is going to be a rough month.”

Adan then gave the monthly report. Good news, the store had earnings of Q561 for the month and even after paying off some of the Cooperatives debts. The Cooperative as a whole is still in debt but we are making gains in cutting the deficit. Speaking of debts there is one that pains me to think of. Maybe pains isn’t the right word, irks me to no end is more like it. You know that helpless, empty feeling that permeates the area where your figurative soul resides when you realize you’ve lost something of importance? That feeling that sends tingles up your spine and makes you want to heave a moan of angst? I get that every time I think about Adan’s loan.

Adan and Loyda are two of my favorite Cooperative associates. They are responsible, friendly and eager to learn. But ever since I uncovered the specifics of this loan of theirs I have an internal (strictly internal) love/hate relationship with them. Although the pair are one of the most engaged Cooperative associates I have learned that in their eyes, as in the eyes most Guatemalans, family takes priority over community. Often to the detriment of progress.

When the tienda was just opening Adan loaned the Cooperative a generous lump of dinero to be used to buy product to stock the store. The loan is working like this; Adan loaned Q10,000 and will receive Q500 monthly in interests until the loan can be paid back in full. None of the Q500 monthly interests goes towards paying off the principal. You know that helpless pain in my soul I just described? I’m getting that feeling right now just writing about this loan. Adan gave the loan September of 2009. He has since received Q7,500 in just interest. My soul is hurting again. You do the math.

Nearly all of the Cooperative earnings are going to pay other outside debts. It will be ages before they can save Q10,000 to pay back Adan in one lump sum. And in the meantime he will be raking in Q500 monthly. And I’m pretty sure he knows this. In fact, I know he knows this because when I took him aside last month to try to convince him to let the Coop refinance the loan, and told him, “Adan, its going to be impossible for the Cooperative to get out of this loan!” He said with a smirk, “I know.”

I warned Adan that I was going to discuss his loan at the meeting. I even gave him the opportunity to play the “good guy” and offer up the proposed refinance as his own idea. But he wanted me to do the talking and said, “Let’s see what the other members think.” Yesterday, when he was done with giving the monthly report, he was the one that said, “And now Annalisa wants to discuss my loan.”

Annalisa: “I have spoken with Adan about the possibility of refinancing his loan. Since it seems like it will be a while before the Cooperative can save Q10,000 I think it might be a good idea to negotiate a change in how the principal is paid back. Maybe try to refinance so that part of the Q500 that we pay him monthly will go to pay off the principal and a portion will be interests.”

All the associates agreed that this would be a good idea.

Maritza: “Adan, would you agree to this change?”

Adan: “No.”

Maritza: “So your loan is non negotiable”

Adan: “It's non negotiable.”

Annalisa’s internal thoughts: “what a jerk. I’m definitely not going to give him a Christmas goody bag.”

I’m not kidding. I was furious with his intractability and in retaliation my brain immediately sought the only punishment I could bestow upon him. Neglecting him a christmas present.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Personal Space

“I guess I am most surprised by the lack of respect for personal space.”

This was Julia’s response to my question, “What about Guatemala is different than you expected?”

It’s true that the buses are so crowded that passengers are expected to sit three to a two-person bench seat. Every time the bus pauses, at a corner, at a stop, at a road block or in traffic, vendors and preachers climb aboard pushing and squeezing their way through the already crowded aisle. Plump women carry dehydrated plantains, fruit or fried chicken on their heads while conducting a sing-song sales pitch in a tight nasal voice, “plataninas, jovenes, plataninas.” Boys hop on carrying nuts, candy and beverages and clean shaven men tote bibles and preach the good word, instantly converting the bus into a mobile house of worship. Julia got a taste of all of this while visiting me and quickly realized after being smacked by a basket carrying chili rellenos and a life size piñata why the window seat is the most coveted spot on the bus. Luckily, she kindly considered our bus rides cultural experiences.

Julia also got the full exposure of boom box and loud speaker presence in my town. There is not a moment of silence here. Beginning at 6:30 am
the guy across the street gets on his loud speaker and preaches to the town while sitting on his front porch with a microphone in hand. At about 8:00 my neighbors to both sides alternate playing their radios at maximum decibel levels. Lastly, the day is topped off by the broadcast of the evangelical sermon and accompanying congregational clapping and singing down the dirt path. I guess the constant blaring noise isn’t what you’d typically consider a physical encroachment on one’s personal space but it is still behavior that effects one’s ability to live without outside influences. In order to better block out the noise, Julia requested that we leave my fan on at night so the humming noise would drain out the early morning gospel and allow us to sleep at least until 7:30.

She got one more dose of lack of privacy while in my town. One day Julia and I were in my backyard eating lunch and she asked me where my neighbor’s bathroom and shower was. She was peering through the chain link fence that separates my yard from my neighbors and I turned to see what she was looking at. One of my neighbors was showering in her pila- fully clothed in a tanktop and shorts. “They have a shower and toilet under the steps but I think they just prefer to shower in the pila,” was my response. It makes perfect sense really. After washing all the clothes Saydee, my neighbor, is hot and sweaty and ready for a wash herself, so she just starts dumping water over her head, scrubs and showers right then and there in the middle of the backyard.

Thanks for visiting me Jules and letting me rediscover Guatemala through fresh eyes.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Odd Jobs

For the past two weeks every time I stop by our old tienda location where Eslin works under new ownership some rounded middle-aged woman with a long dark ponytail is behind the counter instead of Eslin. Today I decided to find out why Eslin wasn’t working and sauntered over to Brenda’s salon “Beautiful Star” to get the scoop. Brenda informed me that a week or so ago Eslin had symptoms of a miscarriage and hasn’t been working since. That’s all she said and told me I should go stop by her house to see how she is doing.

After I gave my English lesson I made my way down the main street the hundred yards or so to Eslin’s house across from the cemetery. I found her at her fence chatting with her cousin wearing a bright yellow floral top, jean miniskirt and a pair of white Steve Madden sandals that I gave her (I love it when she wears them). All appearances looked normal and I was a bit relieved. She then invited me to her stoop to chat for a bit.

There was no jovial chitchat to commence the conversation because as soon as I told her I had passed by the store a few times looking for her but only saw some random lady, the floodgates opened.

“Oh Annalisa, you won’t believe what I have been through! That lady is the owner of the store and when she came back to Casas Viejas she told me I had to give my renunciation because she was going to take over. We went through all of the accounts, I closed out all of the credits, we did an inventory and everything was as it should be. But, when I left she started telling everyone that came to the store that I had stolen Q6,000. What would I do with Q6,000, that is a lot of money! And the store was still fully stocked. If I had taken the money I would have left the store empty. The rumors that she spread upset me so much that I almost lost my baby. I was tormented and sick and started to hemorrhage. Everyone thought I would have to go to the hospital, that the baby was going to come early, but thank goodness I got better. And now she is telling everyone that I was a pig and left the tienda dirty with trash everywhere. The worst part is she is family! She is Marvin’s aunt! (Marvin is Eslin’s husband). I refuse to go to the center of town. I’ve never been so embarrassed in all of my life.”

I was shocked at what she told me, Brenda didn’t mention anything about the animosity between the new owner and Eslin. I consoled her as best as I could, telling her that gossip is horrible and that I’ll do whatever I could to dispel the rumors. I assured her that anyone that has ever been to the store knows that she kept it extremely clean and this woman is going to lose customers by spreading untruths.

As she was thanking me for my support a man pushing a bike hobbled to the gate at the front of Eslin’s house and asked permission to enter. Eslin giggled and turned to me and began to explain, “Here there is a superstition that a woman who is pregnant with her first baby can cure ailments, that is why he is here.” The man limped to the front porch carrying some sort of cream and Eslin gave him a chair, took the cream and asked him what had happened. He replied, “I twisted my foot and dislocated my toe, it hurts tremendously.” Eslin then opened the cream, put some on her fingers and began stroking and soothing his right foot and baby toe with the cream. “Does it hurt?” she asked. “Yes, it still hurts” he replied with a cringe. As she kept at the foot he loosed up a bit and after about 2 minutes of “healing” she put the cap back on the cream and said, “all done.” He asked how much it would cost and she said, “nothing.” I watched as he hobbled back to the gate and climbed on his bicycle all the while thinking to myself, “well, since she lost her job at the store, she really ought to think about charging for this service, at least for the next six months.”

Monday, November 15, 2010

Ya Queremos Pastel (We Want Cake)


Today I celebrated my Birthday. Two months late.

When I arrived at the Coop tienda for our daily closing ritual Seno Maritza whipped out a cake box. Naturally, I thought someone in town had put in an order through the new bakery whose bread we are busing in from Chiquimulilla to sell at the store. Then she opened the box and beckoned me over. That is when I saw written in pink and blue frosting: Felicidades Analiza (that's me). I was so confused. Adan explained that they have been wanting to get me a cake since September 16th when we had our road trip to Jalapa. Two months later the cake made it to Casas Viejas and they all sang me happy birthday. I love Guatemala.

p.s. a lot of people here spell my name Analiza which also happens to be the third person singular form of the verb analizar. This translates to: she analyzes. I think the name is fitting.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Thriller

A few weeks back I started up summer school English classes for the kids in town. This year I limited my class to 5th and 6th graders hoping that a smaller class would enable me to have a bigger impact. So far I think its working. Instead of my class of 30 from last year, I have about 10-15 (depending on the day). There are six boys (Jorge, David, Luis Angel, Miguel Eduardo, Hugo and Henry) and two girls (Cinthia and Andrea) that come religiously. Unlike last year, when it was like pulling teeth to get the kids to talk in class, this group proudly participates.

Today, I decided to skip the lesson plan and have a Halloween themed instruction in honor of one of my favorite holidays. I knew it would be a good day when as soon as I was turning the key to unlock the classroom door I hear the pounding of pavement and screeching of bike brakes behind me. The boys had arrived. I opened the door and they pushed past me all saying, "Good morning teacher." They rushed to their seats up front and patiently waited for me to begin writing the lesson plan on the whiteboard. Its 9:40 am. My class starts at 10 am. Nothing reassures me more that my work is worth while than the punctuality of these eager students.

I started the lesson with a review of changing words from the singular to plural form and reviewed the seasons, months and days of the week vocabulary. Most kids already know English basics; colors, days, greetings, animals, fruit etc. I was able to rush through the "boring" vocab to get to the "Halloween" vocab. Ghost, coffin, witch, pumpkin, trick or treat, candy... they loved it all. Then we reviewed some phrases: Sunday, October 31, is Halloween. Children wear costumes. Katie will dress as a witch. What will you dress as? The last question I made them all come up with a costume and announce, "I will dress as a ______. Each was rewarded with a handful of candy corn (Thank you Katie Goodhew for sending me Halloween treats!) I went student by student. There was a vampire, princess, ghost, monster... Then when I got to the last student, David, he said, "I will dress as Michael Jackson." Which serendipitously led into the final activity: the playing "Thriller," the kids favorite MJ hit. They all jumped up and cleared a little dance floor and got their Michael on. I captured a bit of it on tape for you guys to see.

video


p.s. Uncle Art, Tata Annie, Sylvie, Ariel, Sophie, Stan and little nena Dahlia, thank you for your lovely package! Today we used the brown construction paper that the box was wrapped in (nothing goes unused here) to make nameplates for the kids. They thank you too. As for the contents of the package, my stomach and I have decided upon other plans for those treats.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Road Trip

The words “road trip” evoke sentiments of adventure, uncertainty and camaraderie. Something about being confined to a small space with a gang of cohorts for an extended period of time always induces unexpected and memorable events, if not a good story line, like the one I'm about to unfold.

I recently had the pleasure of going on a “road trip” with four male members of my cooperative. I was one female in a car full of men- the first sign that things were going to get interesting. We had a 9am meeting in Jalapa with SAT- the IRS of Guatemala- to review proper financial reporting specific to Cooperatives. The drive to Jalapa is about 4 hours each way.

At 4:30 am Julio and the gang picked me up from my house in Don Edgar’s beat-up 1990’s maroon Mazda. Being gentlemanly, the guys gave me the front seat. I actually prefer not to take that coveted seat up front because seat belts are as common in Guatemala as side-view mirrors (read: not common) and I’d probably be the first to fly through the windshield if we got into an accident- luckily i’m still here to tell this tale. Speaking of seat belts, I caused some early morning chuckles when I took my throne up front and instinctively reached my arm back to grab the “seat belt” which of course wasn’t there. Moises, seeing this automatic reflex, gave a little giggle from the back seat and said, “You’re not going to find one of those here, hahaha.” “reeeeal funny.” I thought to myself.

And so the trip began all of us in high spirits. Julio was our chauffeur, I was manning the radio as co-pilot and Adan was sandwiched by Moises and Jamie in the back seat. Our first interesting incident occurred at about 5:30 am. We were making our way up the mountainous terrain just outside of a town called Moyuta when the car started to jerk. Immediately Julio says, “I knew I should have put gas into the car yesterday.” I look at the gas gauge and we are literally running on empty. I start to get a little worried, we had quite a bit of upward climbing left to do and there was no sign of civilization. Nevertheless, I kept my anxieties to myself. We continued our ascent, chugging along in an epileptic seizure-like motion for a good 10 minutes. It didn’t help that coming from the back seat with every jerk Adan would peep a, “whoop” and Jamie would follow with a, “Nope, not going to make it.” Miraculously, we did make it to the top of the hill just outside of Moyuta and below us I could see a gas station. “Saved!” I thought to myself. Julio pumped the gas pedal one more time and we sped down the hill towards the town. But, as we neared the gas station I noticed he wasn’t slowing down to turn into its lot, we got closer and closer and I just looked longingly at the lonely gas pumps as we whizzed by. “What are you doing!” I exclaimed “We need to stop for gas!” “Yeah but the gas station up the road is cheaper.” was Julio’s reply. After two minutes more of jerky driving we were filling up the tank.

My favorite part about Julio is that he hasn’t quite figured out yet that I understand Spanish. Instead of talking to me like a normal human being, he speaks in choppy phrases using animated hand jesters to ensure that I understand what he is saying. So instead of saying something like, “We are going to drive to Jalapa,” He’ll say, “Drive car Jalapa” while grabbing an imaginary steering wheel. So when we were nearing Jutiapa he turns to me and says, “Hungry? Coffee?” which of course means, “Are you hungry? Would you like to stop for coffee?” The consensus was yes and we pulled off at a roadside stand.

We piled out of the car and as we began walking to the muchacha with a red cap who was setting up her venta for the morning, I noticed Moises had a huge wet spot covering his entire rear-end. I brought this to his attention and he said, “The backseat is wet.” That was that and he spent the rest of the day with a soggy toosh.

We ordered our coffee and pan tostada from the woman in the red cap and I sat enjoying my breakfast as the four men, all married mind you, began flirting with the woman and her three daughters. They were playing the game “Us three are married but Jamie is single.” The small talk was nauseating, “So how many beautiful daughters do you have?”, “Is your husband going to come here and beat me up for talking with you?” Don Jamie left the stand with a napkin containing the red cap lady’s phone number.

When we arrived at the SAT office we filed into the meeting room and took our seats. The presentation was of the powerpoint variety and was quite informative although I could tell the information was in one ear and out the other for most of the audience. There is a reason my Coop hired an accountant to take care of all of their financials. At the end of the presentation we all handed in an evaluation form in exchange for a “Diploma.” There are few things more coveted by Guatemalans than a diploma. It’s hard evidence of achievement. So we all left with a piece of paper affirming that we had participated in the “tax-paying obligations of cooperatives” course.

Back in the car Jamie took the wheel for the drive home. We were all a bit worn out from the morning ride and subsequent three hour lecture. Nevertheless, every time we passed a young girl walking on the road in tight jeans Jamie would give a little honk of approval. The guys obviously unconcerned with the company of a female in their presence maintained a steady conversation about women the entire ride home. Some aspects of human nature are universal. At one point, after passing a particularly attractive young female Jamie gave his little tap of the horn and murmured, “Como dice Don Edgar, “Si es el diablo, que me lleva”” (Like Don Edgar says, If its the devil, let him take me).

Friday, October 15, 2010

Mine

Early last month Veronica brought baby Mia into the world. The name is a variant of Maria and also means "mine" in Spanish. It was one of the names I suggested during our little naming game in August that you may remember me writing about. When the bun was still in the oven I would always part with Veronica by saying, Hasta mañana, Vero" (until tomorrow, Vero (short for Veronica)), then waive to her stomach and say, "hasta mañana, Mia". When I first went to go visit the baby I asked what name Veronica had given her and she said, "We gave her the name Mia, a little remembrance of Annalisa." I was flattered.

A few weeks after Veronica gave birth to Mia, Eslin confided in me that she too was now pregnant. As has become customary prenatal chit-chat, yesterday Eslin, Brenda and I were talking names on the stoop of Eslin's tienda. I suggested Isabela. Eslin replied by saying, "Isabela, Isabela, I like it. I'm not going to tell anyone though, this name is mine."

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Salinas. Take two.

The last week of September we saw six straight days of nonstop rain and, of course, Casas Viejas flooded once again. I was beginning to think we should rename the town to Casas Mojadas (wet houses) but then remarkably on Tuesday the rain stopped. Everyone in my town is convinced that "ya se fue la lluvia" (the rain has left) and summer is now upon us.

With summer comes sunshine and with sunshine comes the salt harvest season. On Friday the Cooperative had a meeting to discuss what will become of our salina this year. Since we are still paying off debts from last year's harvest, going into the meeting I was prepared to convince the socios that we need not go into another year hastily. I discussed with them the importance of planning and mentioned that if we aren't going to work the salinas we need to start investigating what we can do with the land and equipment- assets that we could rent to make back some of our investment. After my little spiel, Toribio, the secretary, did a vote to see who wanted to invest in the salinas another year. Four socios voted affirmatively.

Then to my delight Julio proposed an ingenious idea. He suggested that the Cooperative rent out the salina to the four socios who wanted to work the land. These socios would pay the Cooperative a set amount for the land, boards and nylon, a fee that the cooperative could then use to pay off the salinas debts. The socios who work the salina would be responsible for additional investments (gasoline, purchasing a new motor, etc), and supplying the labor. They would also reap any profits from sales. A huge benefit to this proposal is that the Coop would be guaranteed income. It also hands over the responsibility of the salinas to those few who actually want to work the land.

One of the biggest problems with the salinas last year was that no one wanted to work them. We lagged in prepping the land and lost weeks of harvesting time because the socios didn’t show up to help lay and mend the nylons. When the land was finally ready, we hired outside labor to harvest the salt. The point of a cooperative is to provide work for its associates. I never understood why we were paying a nonmember for labor- money that left the cooperative and benefited no socio. With this new system the four socios will be motivated to work because they will be putting their own money into the salina and will be forced to do a better job of managing the business. It puts the onus on them to make a profit. Brilliant. The four socios have until the 21st of October to decide if they are going to rent the land. If they do, I will be able to work with them on business planning, organizing, managing and finding buyers.

Friday, September 17, 2010

That Time of Year

I knew it was that time of year again when I started hearing my neighbor kids practicing Beethoven's “Ode to Joy” and the theme song from “Titanic” on their school issued plastic recorders. To me the recorder playing signals the eminent arrival of Independence Day, or as I refer to it, Independence Week. A few weeks ago when I heard kids hitting off key notes around town it immediately made me think back to my host sister Lidia in Alotenango. She too practiced the recorder around this same time and then it dawned on me that I have been here long enough to start noticing yearly seasonal and cultural patterns. It kinda makes Guatemala feel a little bit more like home.

This Independence Week played out much like it did last year. Parades, running of the torcha, fireworks etc. The first activity I participated in was the crowing of this year’s “Señorita Independencia.” You’ll remember from my last post that we had a few beauty pageants in town recently- none of which was used to decide on the Independence Day Queen. Nope, there is no judging when it comes to choosing the Queen it’s done democratically through public voting. But remember, we are in Guatemala so instead of casting a ballot, you cast your vote (or votes) in currency. The girl with the most “votes” or “queztales” is crowned queen. In other words, its really just a test to see who’s parents love their little girl enough (and have the means) to fork over a few hundred Q’s to win her that sash and crown. Democracy Guatemalan style.

One other new activity for me this year was the singing of the national anthem. I guess last year I missed this but no fear, I got my fill this year. I went to a total of three Independence Day activities at the local schools, each of which started with the National Anthem. First, at the crowning of the “Señorita Independencia”, kids lined up in front of the stage and sang along with a recorded version of kids singing the anthem. To me it was a bit awkward - I felt like I was watching a lip-sync contest without the enthusiasm. Second, at the “Premaria” or elementary school activity the director of the school must have been embarrassed about the previous Milli Vanilliesque anthem performance and made a BIG deal about having everyone sing the anthem a cappella. He even insisted that the vendors stop selling food while the anthem proceedings were underway. To Americans this may seem like standard procedure, but then again our national anthem isn’t ten minutes long. Yes folks, I think the Guatemalan anthem might be the longest in the world- its like a marathon- I agree vendors should stop selling but only because they should be passing out gatorade to quell exhaustion from undertaking the venture. Jokes aside, I was pleasantly surprised by the publics performance sans recording. Almost everyone knew all of the words, or did a good job of faking it.

I’m going to leave you with some wonderful sights and sounds of the Independence Day hoopla. Viva Guatemala!





video

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Pageant, Flood, Pageant, Flood, Pageant

I'm beginning to believe there is a correlation between beauty pageants and torrential downpour. Someone needs to inform Guatemala that the gods feel they are the only ones capable of judging human beauty.

August 18th Senorita Revista beauty pageant


August 18th-20th Torrential downpour

August 25th Mister Instituto beauty pageant postponed during Talent segment due to thunderstorms

August 26th: Flooding in Casas Viejas

September 2nd: Mister Instituto rescheduled again due to heavy rain
September 3rd: Flooding in Casas Viejas

September 8th: Mister Instituto beauty pageant successfully completed


Now I'm just waiting for the gods' response.

But, in all seriousness, I've seen better days down here. This rainy season has been the worst in recent history. You may have seen in the news that the excess rainfall has caused catastrophic landslides placing Guatemala in a state of emergency. Casas Viejas has had more than its share of the travesties. My town is situated on a floodplain and surrounded by a river/canal system that runs from the mountains to the ocean. Rain has been pounding us consistently and on top of that the rivers surrounding us can't contain all of the rain that is rushing down from nearby mountains and is spilling out and flooding the town. For the past week or so there has been flooding all around me. The roads have turned into rivers. Cattle are roaming freely because their pastures have been converted into lakes. Our electricity is continually disrupted. Hundreds of people have been displaced. Yet, everyone is handling the dire situation with palpable resilience. Life, after all, must go on and beauty pageant queens (and misters) still must be crowned.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Change is Contagious

Hector the shop boy quit. He worked exactly 18 days at the Coop tienda. His reason for leaving: he wanted to move to Esquintla to live with his sister and get a job there. I was sad to see him go, even bought him a desert empanada as a going away present, and wished him the best of luck in his future endeavors.

Iris, Hector’s replacement, trained with him on his last day. This gave me much pleasure because I was able to watch as Hector explained to her how to maintain all of our books. He had learned the system I taught him well enough to teach another individual- the key to sustainability. Iris proved to be an even better bookkeeper than Hector and on her first day was only short Q0.40 from the register.

But alas, change must be contagious because Iris quit too. She worked exactly 8 days. Her reason for leaving: her brothers (who all live in Irvington, NJ) want her to stay at home and help her mother. Tomorrow is Iris’ last day. It will be sad to see her go, I plan on buying her a desert empanada as a going away present (or maybe a chocobanano if the empanada lady doesn’t pass by the store tomorrow), and will inevitably wish her all the luck in her future endeavors.

We still don’t have a replacement for Iris. Should be an interesting next few days.

In other news, I have new neighbors. See, change is contagious. They moved today into what was previously an empty house to the left of mine. Tragically, the family was displaced due to all the flooding that has been happening on the North side of town. Those effected by the flooding have been living in knee high water for the past three days. Families are sleeping outside on the elevated road in front of their homes, afraid to leave for fear of being robbed. I have consistently told Don Edgar (whose house has been flooded 13 times this year) that I think we should gather the people who have been effected and discuss what we can do to improve the situation- maybe ask the government to send an engineer out to see what is causing the flooding and how it could be avoided, or research costs for elevating their homes. So far I’ve had no luck in convincing him to do this, most likely because every other day he is occupied with bailing his house out. I may have better luck when the rains subside in October- will keep you posted.

So back to my new neighbors... I’m not so sure how this change is going to effect my way of living in the long run but I do know my new neighbors and I are going to get real close real fast. To explain, the chain-link fence that separates our houses is great for keeping their chickens on their side of the fence but doesn’t do much good in the privacy department. In fact, I happened to catch a young man showering in his turquoise tighty whities through the fence tonight as I was walking to my kitchen to cook my dinner. Two seconds later I overheard him ask, “who is that?.” The response was, “The Gringa.” Luckily, my shower is tucked around the other side of my house so I won’t have the same bathing privacy issues.

However, I have a feeling I’m no longer going to be able to keep my weekly routine of “Julianne Hough Cardio Ballroom” and “Jullian Michaels: 30 Day Shred” exercise videos a secret anymore. And, now when I eat my dinner alone at my little plastic table in my backyard, I won’t really be alone. Which is funny because before it didn’t bother me to eat alone but now that other people will be watching me eat alone, I’m gonna feel awkward and, well, alone. Its kinda like going to Buca Di Beppo and asking for a table for one. You know the waiter is thinking, “does this girl know we do family-style here?” and all the other patrons are giving you pity looks. Its just so awkward. Yes, I quite like this analogy. All that is missing is the garlic bread and checkered table cloth. Ciao- Let's Mangia.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Birth and Death

The first two weeks at the new Coop tienda location have been a success. Sales are steady and Hector, the shop keeper, has done a stellar job at maintaining the set of books I have requested he keep. The books detail the sales, purchases and credit flowing through the business. We have also initiated a new meeting at 5PM every day in which the Vigilancia (vigilance committee), Tesorero (treasurer) and Hector reconcile the books to see how the day ended. The store doesn’t actually close until about 8PM but our “day” ends at 5PM and sales after that point go onto the following day’s books.

This week the minibank also was moved from its temporary location at Jenny’s computation center to the new tienda local. With the move came Veronica (bank teller) and Manuel (doing an internship of sorts at the minibank). Having Veronica at the tienda adds a little spunk to the atmosphere. The girl likes to gossip and has shared all sorts of gushy town dirt with me, such as, which men frequent prostitutes, who hits the bottle a little too hard... I would elaborate but I recently found out that someone who reads my blog (you know who you are) has been reporting information back to people in town and I don’t want to cause any unnecessary trouble. I’m sure you understand.

Veronica’s affinity for gossip is not the only entertaining thing about her. She is six months pregnant and her little bun in the oven is also the source of good chit-chat. She finds out the sex of her little "túmulo" this week. I don’t know the word for bump in Spanish. I do, however, know "túmulo" which translates to speed bump so this is what I refer to her baby bump as- close enough. We spent one afternoon last week going through potential baby names. I did the naming and she would respond if she liked it or not. It went a little like this:

Anna: Micah
Veronica: No, hate it 
Anna: Max
Veronica: OK but Maximilian
Anna: Jackson
Veronica: Jason?
Anna: No, Jackson
Veronica: Jason?
Anna: Zachary
Veronica: Esaqu..... (definitely couldn't pronounce that)
Anna: Brent
Veronica: huh? 
Anna: Trent
Veronica: huh? 
Anna: Charly
Veronica: I like that one. Give me some more...

And so the afternoon went. She came out liking a few of my suggestions but when I offered Annalisa for a girl's name she just laughed at me.

I had intended to end my blog post with the baby name story but there was a passing in my town Friday night which has given me the opportunity to bring together, as often occurs, the two themes of birth and death. I will warn you that this post is now turning a little dark...

Friday night as the town was experiencing a unusually heavy rainfall a man was killed outside of the town cemetery. The murder took place while I was tucked away in my bed, coincidentally, watching the horror movie American Psycho (thanks Danielle). I didn’t hear the handful of gunshots that rang out because they were masked by the pounding raindrops on my rooftop and the sound of Christian Bale's chainsaw. It wasn’t until Saturday morning, when I stopped by the tienda, that I learned of the tragedy. I will recount the details that I have gathered from various sources.

The deceased was a young man of questionable character; a known gang member who also meddled in the dealing and consumption of drugs. His fatal flaw, however, was his inclination to steel from the people in town and then escape of to the capital to sell the ill-gotten gains. Let me remind you that my town is pretty small- just over 2,000 inhabitants. The large majority of people are honest, hardworking and respectful so when there is a rotten apple in the bunch it's easy to pick that person out. And picked out this delinquent was. He was walking by himself after nightfall and someone (or some people) took the law into their own hands and shot him to death. He was found shortly after the deed was done with no less than 8 bullets in his body. One right through his forehead.

Civil policing is not uncommon in Guatemala. In a country where few have faith in the government, police are seen as another futile and corrupt arm of the powers that be. And as awful as this incident was, the townspeople are shaken but show no outrage. “Now we will have fewer problems” is their ultimate conclusion, "the gangs will think twice before coming to Casas Viejas."

Monday, August 9, 2010

Only Time Will Tell

I made it safely back to my site last weekend. The trip, however,was not my typical four hour/three bus jaunt. Repairs on the bridge between Chiquimulilla and my site still haven’t commenced which added a little detour to my usual route. At the bridge all passengers were unloaded and directed to take a rocky side path down to the river. We then crossed three provisional bridges that just barely cleared the rushing waters below and continued to trek back up a steep hill to the awaiting buses on the other side. While crossing the river I could see the once sturdy bridge now dangling by its support cables 100 feet above my head. The site was a stunning visual of mother nature’s destructive power.

Once back in site I started making the rounds. I visited Seno Lili, Jenny, Loyda and ran into a handful of other socios while walking around town. It felt great to greet everyone in the streets, only i found that instead of a simple “good afternoon,” everyone saluted me with a, "You've finally appeared! We thought you were never coming back." While out and about I ran into the Coop treasurer Don Alfonso who informed me that our Cooperative was in the process of moving tienda locations to a much more “rustic” building with a lower rent. I made a trip to Eslin’s house, our shopgirl, and good friend of mine. She confessed to me that she had quit and will be working at the new libreria that will occupy the cooperative’s old space. I have no hard feelings- I think the Coop came to rely on her too much anyway- and am just glad that she didn’t decide to take a job in Guatemala City.

Last Monday I spent the day with the socios cleaning and fixing-up the new local. About ten minutes into the clean-up I managed to cut my foot on a rusty nail (just my luck) and after giving it a good cleaning called Johanna at the Peace Corps medical office- her response, “I would like to bubble wrap you.” We both decided that I suffer from a “lack of spacial awareness” and I agreed to continue to keep the wound clean and let her know if “it gets pussy or begins to smell” (gross- and luckily neither occurred- the wound is nearly completely healed as I write this post). We finished cleaning the store that evening - the only thing it lacked was product. While cleaning I was informed that the new shop keeper will be a 20 year old guy from a nearby Aldea. Working with a male will change my daily work dynamic immensely. I don’t think I’ll be able to just sit and chat at the store like I did with Eslin. But, I am looking forward to starting from scratch with the store bookkeeping - a clean slate will make it easier for me to get him in the habit of keeping good records. I only hope that he isn’t filled with too much machismo and doesn’t mind taking orders from a female. Time will tell how this change effects the progress I make here.

Wednesday I traveled with Don Jamie and Don Edgar (the current and former Coop presidents) to Cuilapa (a two hour trip in pick-up) to the INACOP offices for a little meeting for all Santa Rosa Coops. INACOP had called the meeting because an opportunity to request government funding for projects had emerged and they wanted to let all Coops try their luck at scoring some of the purse. Nearly 15 representatives from various Cooperatives throughout the department showed up. We were given a small presentation which was followed by a roundtable discussion. The more outspoken attendees took advantage of this time to preach about their misfortunes and coinciding acts of perseverance in the midst of previous monetary obstacles. One woman gave an account of her groups situation, starting her narrative with, “I only would like a few moments of your time” which in Guatemala indicates that she will have the floor for the better part of the next 15-30 minutes. She spoke of the humble beginnings of her cooperative that initiated with the desire to have an income generating outlet for women in her community. They underwent many obstacles to get the group off the ground and reach their current status (abbreviated for brevity’s sake). She then informed us that last year her group had received approval for Q200,000 of funding from the government but when corruption plagued the economic department’s ranks and the head was ousted his budget went with him. This is typical of the empty promises for which the Guatemalan government is so famous. She is still wondering if and when she’ll get the money. The good that came out of her monologue was her depiction of all the trials and tribulations her Cooperative had endured and the success they’ve still found even without the support of the government. On the ride back to Casas Viejas, Jamie and Don Edgar spoke of how much they liked what she had said. We returned home with our spirits high- confident that we could turn around our Coop’s crisis as other Coops had done before us. Still, we wanted to try our luck at government support and resolved to submit three small project requests for funding.

Saturday morning I worked with Seno Maritza on composing our three funding requests. Initially, I was supposed to work with my counterpart Toribio on the documents but his wife fell ill and he had to take her Chiquimulilla. (I’ve heard many accounts of stomach ailments since my return- not uncommon during the rainy season when the water is even less safe to drink than usual). I was happy to work with Maritza on the project profiles as I have found that if anything actually has a chance of getting done in the Coop- she’ll need to be involved. Not that others don’t work, its just she has the capacity to think critically and analyze ideas in an efficient and productive way.

Maritza is a heaven sent for me. She is a mother of four, including one mentally handicapped son, she is a teacher at the elementary school during the morning and is the director of a preschool she runs out of her own home in the afternoon. She also has taken on a “managerial role” at the minibank - closing the bank and doing all the checks and balances at about 6pm every day. When I arrived at her house on Saturday morning she was readying a chicken for a stew. I spent the first thirty minutes in her presence chatting at her pila while she worked with efficient hands beheading, cleaning and disemboweling the body of a recently deceased chicken. As she sawed off the chicken’s head she explained to me that she didn’t know how to prepare a chicken until she moved to Casas Viejas (she is from a town outside of Antigua). “My mother-in-law taught me how,” she told me. As she continued talking I stared at the chicken in a daze, focusing on its mouth as its beak opened and closed in rhythm with every thrust of the knife. My stomach began to turn- seeing the face of the animal was a reminder that it was once alive, breathing from that mouth and seeing out of those eyes. When Maritza found that the knife couldn’t finish the job of severing the head, she took the head in one hand and the lower neck in the other and with one swift yank tore the head from the body and dropped it in a bucket. I was relieved that the face was now out of site and concluded that I’d rather not acquire a mother-in-law that would ever want to teach me to perform proper chicken decapitation.

After the chicken was prepared and had been placed in the fridge, we sat down and spent the rest of the afternoon pumping out three proposals for funding; a community drainage project, a minibank project and a request for additional funding for our tienda. I think the only proposal that stands any chance of funding is the community drainage project. I can’t see the government dealing out cash for a bank or store amplification. However, I was happy to help with the writing and glad that the Coop is not sitting idly by but instead taking advantage of opportunities as they present themselves. Sunday I sent the proposals to the appropriate contact via email. Once again, only time will tell...

While departing Maritza’s house her son Rene came in and told us
that the river that cuts through Casas Viejas was overflowing and flooding the North side of town. Heavy rainfall in the mountains was making its way down the canal and emptying out onto numerous plots of land held by town residents- including Don Edgar (his house is the light blue one in the below picture). This was the third time this year that the town suffered from flooding. At this point it is almost becoming a normality- as I walked the street taking pictures I found groups of kids swimming in their front yards and families hanging out on their porches just watching as the water rose. Some people even posed for pictures, imploring me to come closer to get a better shot. Coincidentally, the government proposal Maritza and I had written for drainage was aimed at avoiding this very exact problem.

Sunday afternoon I had my first soccer game in almost four months. I first thought it might be a bad idea to play with my nose still healing but, since none of the other girl players challenge for balls in the air, I felt I was pretty safe from any more head trauma. I was right and left the game unscathed and with two assists and one goal to my name. We won 5-0.

Today we worked once again on the tienda, this time stocking all the shelves with merchandise. It took 6 hours to place all the products and do an inventory (which I insisted was necessary even though they performed one before leaving the old location.) I met the new shop keeper Hector- very nice young man and I have a feeling we will get along just fine- namely because he seemed on board with my record keeping requests during a little impromptu bookkeeping training I gave him. Tomorrow we open the store at 6:30 AM and I’m heading into this with high hopes!

Friday, July 30, 2010

The last month of my life...

Over a month ago I embarked on my first visit back to the US since arriving in Guatemala. Leading up to the big trip everyone urged me to prepare myself for reverse culture shock- shock at how clean the US is, at how good it smells, at how efficiently things are run- but after an unexpected mouth gaping moment induced by a wall stacked with American magazines (pop culture overload I guess) at the Newsbeat airport shop in Atlanta, I easily fell right back into the swing of things.

My vacation began with a good old fashioned cross country road trip. My sister Danica was moving from DC to LA and I gladly offered myself up as co-pilot with one stipulation, she would have to teach me to drive stick shift. To be fair, she had no other option since her Suburu is a manual. We practiced my shifting abilities a few times in the parking lot of Mi Casita (the first meal I had back was Mexican- go figure) and although I was no Earnhardt I managed to share driving time without blowing out the transmission. Our route went from DC to Savannah (charming little picture perfect town) to New Orleans (I can’t speak for the rest of NOLA but the French Quarter was alive and kickin’) to Austin (now I know why everyone raves about Austin- A-MAZING) to Balmhorea, TX (um yeah, West Texas, nuff said) to Tucson (I got the best pedicure ever there) to Los Angeles (home sweet home). Danica and I had a great time exploring each city, eating local fare and rocking out in the car to Belinda Carlisle and Katy Perry (we couldn’t escape that California Gurlz song- but it was fitting).

Back in LA I got to grab sushi with the girls,
hang out with Ty at the Warped Tour (wish you had been there Kamille!), watch World Cup with old soccer buddies, enjoy my mom’s birthday dinner with the family and do a couple nights out in Manhattan Beach. As my stay progressed, slowly but surely I realized nothing stateside had really changed. My friends were dealing with the same old drama, the ribs at Johnny P’s tasted just as delectable as they did last year and even Justin Bobby was still on the hills (really MTV? so disappointing). Being back in the states was such a treat but I guess the grass is always greener and after my two weeks romping around the US I was ready to get back to Guatemala.

The Sunday before my departure I was soaking up one last day of fun with my friends down in Manhattan Beach when disaster struck. Kelly, Alexis, Danielle, Kirsten and I decided to partake in a friendly game of beach volleyball. OK, sidebar, anyone that knows me knows that I don’t do a “friendly game” of anything- I’m much too competitive by nature. So in this game of volleyball, when I saw a return ball about to hit sand I dove for it. Unfortunately, so did Kelly’s fiance Joe and we collided, or more precisely, my face slammed against the back of his head. My face went completely numb, my mouth was full of sand and I just started touching my nose and running my tongue along my teeth to make sure they were all still there. Alexis ran over to me and I asked her if there was any blood. The response was affirmative and was confirmed by the newly formed red droplets dripping from my fingers. I remember Alexis saying “Let’s get her to the hospital” and just thinking, “Oh my, I can NOT deal with this right now.” In all honesty, I was more pissed than scared. My perfect last day had just taken a turn for the worse. It didn’t help knowing that getting injured while serving in the Peace Corps is a process. Volunteers are supposed contact the appropriate medical officers before any care or medical services are rendered and there I was in my bathing-suit, no Peace Corps insurance card, no Peace Corps phone numbers, no nothing. Luckily, I had the best friends in the world taking care of me. They all rushed me to the urgent care and before the doctor had finished cleaning and dermabonding my nose Danielle was on the phone with Marjie at the DC headquarters getting all the insurance procedural information for me. Danielle also was the one to pass along the message from Marjie that this incident had put me on medical hold. I could forget about flying back to Guatemala the next day.

The urgent care physician didn’t have the ability to confirm if my nose was indeed broken so I had to wait a few days for the swelling to go down and then make a trip to an ENT doctor to get my nose looked at again. That Thursday I went with my Dad to Dr. Lee’s office in Thousand Oaks. I thought I was prepared for any outcome- either he was going to tell me the nose wasn’t broken and i’d be on a plane back to Guatemala that night or he was going to tell me it was broken and i’d have to live with it (i don’t think Peace Corps pays for nose jobs) and i’d be on a plane back to Guatemala that night. Since I’m tired of writing, (I’m out of blogging shape after taking a month off) I’m going to share my doctor’s office experience via an email I wrote to my girl friends after returning home from the visit.

Hey girls,

Just got back from the doctors- most traumatizing experience ever. He
performed a closed nasal reduction which basically translates to
"break nose back into place". I think the whole ordeal was worse than
when I actually broke my nose in the first place. The worst part was
that I was awake during the entire procedure- first he stuck long
needles up my nose to give me local anesthesia, then he grabbed these
huge metal prongs - long enough to do a frontal lobotomy, shoved them
up my nose and started thrusting my nose back into place. So
excruciatingly painful and all the while i'm hearing the cracks and
pops. When he was done molding my nose he pulled up a mirror and says,
"doesn't it look better?". I look at my poor face, nose blotchy with
black and blue and yellow and red, blood starting to run down my
nose again and my cheeks all puffy- i looked so awful I responded,
"um, not really" Then he bandaged me up and put a little plastic
cast over the bridge of my nose. I was in shock. I’m pretty
sure I left the office hyperventilating I was so traumatized.

That was at 9am. I'm feeling a lot better- i've been reassured by
everyone that after the swelling goes down its going to look back to
normal- I just can't get the picture of the way it looked in the
mirror out of my mind. Also, the Peace Corps has been really helpful
and accommodating- that Marjie is a gem. The doctor wants to do a
follow-up next week so i'll be hanging out at my parents for a little
longer. Looking on the bright side, i'll have all the time in the
world to study for the GRE.

So thats the update, not pretty but i guess it could always be worse
right? At least I still have all my teeth!


That pretty much says it all. The following three weeks I spent at home recuperating and studying for the GRE (I did manage to make it out, nose cast and all, for the 4th of July).
What I haven’t mentioned yet is that before the accident I was supposed to go back to Guatemala on June 28th but I also had a second trip back to The States planned for July 16th-27th to take the GRE and go to my friends Ally and Jon’s wedding. I was still on medical hold up and through my second planned vacation and therefore, still able to take the GRE and attend the wedding. I was finally medically cleared to go back to country on July 28th. On the 29th I was on a red eye back to Guatemala.

My dad always complains that in my blog I tell a story but don’t explain how my experiences are effecting me on an emotional level (that is what you get for having a psychiatrist as a father). So I’m going to use the end of this post to share some of my more internal thoughts.

The last few days leading up to my departure from California I started getting worried about coming back to Guatemala. I knew that the prolonged stay in the states would make the transition back to my much slower paced and less luxurious life in Guatemala all the more difficult. To explain, being in the Peace Corps is like being on an emotional roller coaster. When I’m here in Guatemala, although few and far between, I do have very lonely days, days that make me miss my life in the states, days that make me yearn for the personal connections I have with friends and family at home, days that leave me empty and in need of that sense of oneness and belonging that being in a foreign culture prohibits. These days of solitude are then counterbalanced by days of extreme bliss, days that make me feel like I have a purpose in life, days that make me feel loved, days that make me whole. My life here is characterized by this mixture of extreme highs and extreme lows. With that said, I’ve been afraid that coming off the heals of such a wonderfully (minus the broken nose bit) “high” trip home, I might experience an exaggerated “low” when I get back to my site.

Luckily, a couple days ago I called my host mom and Eslin to tell them i’d be back in Casas Viejas this week and hearing their enthusiastic voices on the other end of the line say they miss me and that they’ve been waiting for me to come back reassured me that the transition won’t be as bad as I’d imagined. I also get to see some of my favorite PC people Kamille and Trish before heading back to site. Trisha/Pati/The Dish was medically separated back in March/April and was recently reinstated so her arrival has been a LONG time coming and of course, I can never get enough of my Kamille! All of this has helped turned my fears and anxieties about returning into excitement. I am also eager to get back to my town, walk around the streets, shop in the little mercadito, visit my family and Coop socios, lay in my hammock and most of all get back to work. I did leave my Coop in crisis and although I know they have been surviving and will always be able to survive without me, I still have the desire to do what I can to make their work and lives a little better.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Agatha

The season’s first major tropical storm, hit Guatemala with ruthless fury last week. She came on the heals of two earthquakes and a volcanic eruption. As if those two catastrophes weren’t enough, Agatha was the third and final blow rounding out the trifecta of destruction.

The rains began on Wednesday and fell nonstop until Friday. I remember this because Friday morning was clear enough for me to get a load of laundry done, or at least I had hopes of getting it done. About 30 minutes after I hung my last pair of shorts on the line to dry the rains picked up again and I had to move my clothes under my rancho. Friday was also when I started getting phone calls from Peace Corps. First from the Duty Officer, then Ziara my project specialist, then David the Safety and Security Officer. To be honest, I didn’t know what they were all worried about. All the conversations went a little like this,

Them: “How is everything down there?”
Me: “Fine, all is pretty normal.”
Them: “How bad is the rain?”
Me: “Its been raining for a few days but nothing too out of the norm. I’m kinda enjoying it . The rain has cooled it down a bit here.”
Them: “Ok well let us know if the rain starts to cause any problems”

The exception to this dialogue was my conversation with David. He also informed me that I was being put on Standfast along with Trent, the other coastal volunteer. Being put on Standfast meant that I wasn’t able to leave my site until further notice. After this restriction was put on me I began talking with my neighbors about the storm. All of them said that the rain was typical of the season and that there really wasn’t anything to worry about. So worry I did not. Friday passed and then Saturday I got another round of phone calls. Another from Zaira, another from David and a third from Johanna, the medical nurse on duty. “What is all the fuss about?” I thought. I went along with my daily chores, then headed over to Seño Lili and Fernando’s for a lunch of caldo de mariscos (seafood soup). As soon as I made it upstairs where they had prepared the tables under their second story rancho I got another phone call from David. He informed me that the storm was getting worse and that I was being consolidated to Antigua with Trent. A driver would be out to pick me up in three to four hours. “Now this all is becoming serious”. I told my family that I was being consolidated but still had time to sit down to lunch and enjoy their delicious feast.

At about 4 PM Chepe, our Peace Corps driver, and Trent arrived at Casas Viejas. I loaded in my big backpack (I wanted to go prepared- with laptop, playing cards, books, enough clothes for a week...) and we were off. The entire trip the rain was pounding on the windshield and looking out the side windows I could see the sugar plantations begin to flood and pools of water growing rapidly over once green grazing land. Despite the bad road conditions, we were making good time. At 7:30 we were just about 45 minutes outside of Antigua when we came to our first line of red lights. We slowed to a crawl behind a seemingly endless line of cars that disappeared into the darkness in front of us. We moved at a snails pace for about 20 minutes until Chepe flagged down a driver coming the opposite direction and asked what was ahead, “No hay paso” (there is no passing) was the drivers response. We assumed there must have been a mudslide or damaged bridge ahead but it was getting to late to wait it out or investigate. Chepe decided it best if we try a different route and he hooked a Uey and we were off towards the Autopista. Another fifteen minutes passed on the new route when we hit our second round of red lights. This time we found ourselves behind six lanes of red brake lights lined up behind six toll booths with red lights above their windows. We turned on the news and found out a few big rigs had crashed on the toll road blocking all lanes. Chepe contacted the Peace Corps and it was decided that we would wait out the evenings storm in Esquintla.

We pulled up to our Peace Corps approved roach motel at about 9pm. When we got out of the car and asked the motel owner if he had suggestions of where we could go to eat he recommended his own Chinese restaurant attached to the motel. “General Pollo, muy bueno” he said in chinese accented spanish. We put our stuff down and I grubbed on my first chinese meal in 10 months. I ordered the General Pollo, (how could you not after the owner’s own endorsement) and I was not disappointed.

The next morning we walked around Esquintla a bit and found absolutely nothing of interest. We had a quick breakfast and bunkered up in our motel rooms waiting for the green light to get back on the road. Trent and I entertained ourselves with a movie I had brought. I’ll also mention here that I couldn’t have asked for a better consolidation mate. Trent and I got along really well during this whole fiasco. It was great to be around someone that was calm and looked at the experience as I did- “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade”. We both made the best of our situation - just chatting and going with the flow. At noon we got word from the local police that cars could pass on the Esquintla - Antigua route but that the movement was VERY slow. They weren’t lying. We got on the road immediately and waited in the same line we had been in the night before for 4 hours before we came upon the road damage. Our assumption the night before was confirmed. A river that normally ran under a bridge had overflown and covered the two lane highway with mud and debris. A John Deere was on the scene clearing a one lane path. They were allowing cars to pass 10 at a time. Ten from our side, ten from the other side. Every once in a while a sedan would get stuck in the mud and the Deere would have to go down and tow it out- slowing down the process. When it was finally our turn to pass, Chepe put our little SUV into second gear and broke threw to the other side without a problem. Getting on the other side of that mess was the best feeling ever. We were finally going to make it to Antigua. The rest of the route was ridden with minor mud/rockslides and road closures. We made it to our hostel at about 7 PM. A 7 hour trip that normally takes 1 hour.

When we arrived in Antigua we found a handful of other volunteers who were also on standfast in Antigua. We all grouped together and told stories of our personal storm experiences. I shared with them the story of my own town. Through phone calls back to Casas Viejas I had learned that the town was flooded Saturday night. Seño Lili recounted the destruction- homes flooded to their ceilings, cars completely covered by the water and livestock and chickens drowned. The school was flooded and shrimp and saltworks operations were destroyed. It was devastating but luckily no one was injured. Seño Lili told me she was glad that I got out when I did because she thought the sight of it all would have been too overwhelming for me to handle. When I asked about her home she said it wasn’t damaged and the water didn’t reach my casita either. We happen to be on the south side of the town, far away from the river that overflowed and caused all the flooding. I also learned that a main bridge along the route from my town to Esquintla was washed away in the storm. It was then impossible for me to get back to my site unless I found a new route through Guatemala city, to the border of El Salvador and back up to my town. This was a main reason for Peace Corps keeping Trent and me in Antigua.

As days went on we all learned more and more about the destruction that Agatha had caused. Roads were washed away, homes flooded, mudslides took lives and a large sink hole that seemingly opened to the middle of the earth covered a block in Guatemala city. A few of these tragedies hit close to home.

On Wednesday we found out that major landslides had devastated Ciudad Vieja and Dueñas, both towns near Antigua that Peace Corps volunteers and employees call home. Sadly, Eduardo’s, one of my Peace Corps Spanish teachers, home was completely destroyed by a mudslide that hit Ciudad Vieja. After learning about this tragedy Trent and I, along with about 10 other PCVs, went to help dig out homes in his town. When we arrived the scene was unbelievable. A mudslide had blocked up the local canal that deposits water rushing from Volcan de Agua above the city. With the canal clogged, the mud and debris still falling from the volcano’s slopes had to find another route down the mountain. The streets became the new route and mud poured into the city filling a 5 block radius. The town is on a slope so some homes had mud about waist deep throughout. Unfortunately, Eduardo's house is on the lower level of a slope and when the mud busted through the doors of his neighbor’s home above, it rushed down into his house- filling the entire first floor- leaving just the tops of doorways and windows visible above the sea of mud. Unfortunately, we were unable to begin digging out his house because there was too much mud they needed to wait for a machine or pump to help with the work. We ended up helping out at a few of his neighbors homes, shoveling mud, dragging it out to the street in buckets and wheel barrels. A tractor would sweep up the mud from the street, load it in a dump truck and it would be carried away to the local soccer field to be dumped.

Our week in Antigua wasn’t all depressing. With each new day that Peace Corps informed Trent and I that, once again, we were not able to go back to our sites, we took advantage of the time we had to explore the city. We went to see an art exhibit, watched live cuban music and climbed to la cruz to overlook the city.

Finally, I received the green light to come back to my site on Saturday - after a week of being away. Peace Corps mandated that I drive back to my site with Chepe in a PC SUV because my normal route home is still not passable. As I made my way back to Casas Viejas I realized that the damaged bridge isn’t just making my trip home more difficult but is blocking the only passage between my town and Chiquimulilla where a lot of people from my town go to school, work, shop, do their banking etc. Until that bridged is fixed, things are gonna be more difficult for people here. When I got back to site all the water had subsided but remnants of the storm were still visible. All around me were fallen trees, water damage lines on walls of homes, furniture sitting in the sun drying and cars being taken apart. I walked to the local mercadito to buy some vegetables and found three of my socios sitting on the stoop. José Angel, Don Alfonso and Don Adán. All of them had suffered damages to their homes. As we made small talk they sat solemnly with their heads down, completely void of their normally cheery disposition. Almost all of the socios in my coop were effected by the storm. Agatha couldn’t have come at a worse time. As our coop remains in debt our socios will have to shift their focus from saving the Coop to rebuilding their own lives. I still don't know how the storm will ultimately effect the town, the cooperative or my work here. As I walked out of the market I said goodbye to Don Adán and Don Alfonso, expressed regret for their loss and they said, “Gracias, seguimos adelante” (thank you, we will get through this).