Monday, August 15, 2011


I left Casas Viejas on Sunday. Luckily, Kamille came down from Coban to provide much needed moral support and help me get ready for my imminent departure. Sunday's exit from town was proceeded by three days of despedidas (farewells). There were many house visits, exchanging of gifts, an abundance of food and even a piñata named Pollo Xinca.

It all still seems unreal.

On Saturday Tania, Jasmine and Melissa stopped by to drop off some tamales and say goodbye. At one point Tania pulled out her phone and announced that she had a English song she wanted to play for us. The girls sang along as the tune chimed through the cell speakers. The lyrics were coincidentally very fitting, even though the girls didn't know what they were singing. I'm going to leave you all with a little video from that visit.

Before I sign off, though, I wanted to thank all of you for taking this two year journey with me. I hope you all enjoyed reading this blog as much as I've enjoyed writing it.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Soundtrack to My Service

I’ve found music to be a friend during the pivotal moments of my Peace Corps service. Sometimes it’s an entire song, other times a lyric, a guitar chord or a single beat that has stirred my soul into finding a companion in a melody. A companion that smiles, sighs, loves, greaves and dances with my thoughts.

It’s Tupelo Honey while sitting around a fire at Kamille’s. It’s overhearing Eswin’s phone chime out Total Eclipse of My Heart with Amanda and Trish during Spanish class. It’s Barrett Bumpas channeling Bob Dylan on his guitar. It’s Damien Rice thundering through my veins while rain pounds my tin roof. It’s a classroom full of adolescents dancing to Thriller.

I’ve also realized that my most introspective hours are those spent alone, lost in my own thoughts: on the bus, sweeping my yard, in my room late at night or on a morning run. We all need these solitary moments to process life. During these occasions, I often turn to my iPod for company. Once in a while, my player will shuffle to a song that resonates so perfectly with my state of mind that the melody is forever married to that moment.

Now, as I reflect upon the past two years, I have found it fitting to return to the tunes that have accompanied me through my service to help me make sense of it all. I want you to be able to relive these musical moments with me, so we are going to try a little experiment. Play the below and continue to read. Hopefully, I’ve timed this correctly. And as a tip, if you get to a lyric I’ve written down, try to read it along with the song.

Sorry for those of you with a slow internet connection.

I first want to take you back to the summer of 2005 so as to explain what brought me here in the first place. I was an advertising executive still “green behind the ears”, as Bob Wilson, one of my clients and the owner of Fresno Lincoln Mercury, would say. At the time, I was proud of my work accomplishments and loved the people I worked with, but felt a persistent emptiness. I had an unsettling feeling that my career path was not aligned with my passions or aspirations. Every morning I’d get up, get dressed, drive to work, do the daily grind, drive home, eat, sleep and repeat. One particular afternoon, while stuck in traffic (which was every afternoon), the speakers on my Mercury Mariner sang:

I got no time
That I got to get
To where I don't need to be

Those lyrics grabbed me. I, like Jack Johnson, felt lost in a meaningless hustle. Why was I dedicating my time and energy to selling cars? My discontent stemmed from working towards something that I wasn’t passionate about. It was terribly ironic that I was “moving metal” when I, in fact, felt everyone should be riding public transit.

Soon thereafter, I found a new job on the Lexus account, convinced that the Japanese manufacturer was more environmentally conscious, and therefore, I’d get more satisfaction out of my work. Foolish me. The switch was futile. I needed out of automotive advertising all together.

In 2009 I applied to the Peace Corps and as soon as the acceptance letter arrived, I said good-bye to my working life as I had known it.

The switch was not always easy. Many people questioned (especially my grandfather), “Why on earth would you quit a perfectly good, well paying job to join the Peace Corps?” It didn’t help that we were in the midst of the recession. People were getting laid off and I was quitting?

I had many long conversations with my mom reassuring her that the Peace Corps was not a dead end, but a means to a new beginning. I remember her saying, “I know you’re going to end up fine, I just want you to think critically about this decision. Just make sure this is really what you want to do with your life.”

Her concern was not unfounded. I have a history of dabbling. When I was eight I was the only girl in jazz class shuffle-ball-changing in tennis shoes because I had to participate in an activity for five months before she would purchase any specialized equipment. She was worried that the Peace Corps was just another phase. During this time, I resonated with the lyrics:

I can say I hope it will be worth what I give up
If I could stand up mean for the things that I believe

I eventually convinced my mom that I was making the right decision and she gave me her whole hearted support, as she always has (love you, mom).

In Guatemala, I was content with the change of course my life had taken. Still, progress with work and integrating into my community was slow. I had to take the good with the bad. I had days when I felt alienated and days that I beamed with joy. Through the process I learned a lot, but it took returning to Guatemala from a trip to the U.S. to let my experiences distill.

It was August and after having spent weeks in California, the bus ride back to site was particularly poignant. The difference between my life in The States, my life as it used to be, and the new life I lived was shocking but satisfying. I sat on that bus, listening to music and stared out at the lush green flood planes that make up the landscape en route to Casas Viejas. I reveled in the realization that over the past year I had become more patient, more humble and had a better understanding of what really matters in life. I had undergone a personal growth that I would never have achieved in my prior life in Los Angeles. I knew that not many people would be able to relate to this, but I was OK with that.

I flashed through recent memories. My women’s group loving a salad recipe that didn’t include mayonnaise. School kids filing into my English class saying, “Good morning, teacher.” Adan teaching bookkeeping techniques that I had taught him to a new shopkeeper. A song on my ipod rang true:

Oh, This has got to be the good life.
This has got to be the good life
This could really be the good life.
Good Life.

And, it was. In that moment I knew that I had found the meaning and substance that was lacking in my work before the Peace Corps.

The months continued to roll by and I became more and more involved and immersed in my community. I had time to strengthen the relationships I had made with friends in my town and in the Peace Corps community. I had found my place, realizing:

You're already home where you feel loved

Now that I have found a home in Guatemala and a family in the people of Casas Viejas, the thought of leaving is bitter sweet.

This fall I start graduate studies at Columbia's School of International and Public Affairs. Another two year adventure awaits me. I’ll be graduating with a Masters in Public Administration with a concentration in Urban and Social Policy. I want to focus on the roles energy and the environment play in urban development (especially in transit).

No more selling cars. See, mama, not just a phase.

Truth is, I have mixed feelings about the transition from Guatemala to New York City. I think I am underestimating the emotions I have tied up in this beautiful country that I have called home for the past 24 months. It's hard for me to believe that this is not going to be my life in a few weeks. That it'll never be the same. This realization is making me consciously appreciate the little time I do have left, though. It's hard to balance these emotions with the excitement of my life’s next step.

I won't be moving back to LA and I can't expect things to be the way they were when I left two years ago- everything has changed, myself included. I’m going to have to make myself a new home. Once again find my place in this crazy world. Luckily, my brother, sister and some great friends live in the city and nearby in Philly (that’s you, Jules). I'm looking forward to strengthening those relationships. I was processing all of these thoughts while sweeping the dust from my kitchen floor when Bob Dylan asked me:

How does it feel
How does it feel
To be without a home
Like a complete unknown
Like a rolling stone?

I guess I’m a little scared, but mostly excited. New York holds future friends, more learning and a new type of discovery.

Still, I will forever appreciate the simple, comfortable life I have led here. It may take time to get used to not hearing small Guatemalan children yell my name while walking the streets. I’ll miss Marena’s shucos and Doña Leti’s fresh cheese. Flor will no longer be there to greet me through a chain link fence. The Super Niña bus driver won’t wave to me on my morning runs. I won’t be gifted mangos by the dozen.

I’ll have to get used to the cold and the bustle of city life. But, if I ever need to return to Guatemala, I’ll put on these songs and listen to:

them when (I) forget (what I) left here.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Any Given Sunday

I can’t sleep. I got into bed, watched Airplane, played a few, alright, a dozen hands of vacation solitaire on my Nokia phone, even brought my guitar into bed and strummed away until my fingers began to sting.

For the past few months the Holy Bible has been my cure for the occasional nighttime bout of insomnia. Tonight, I’d rather not pick it up; too much bloodshed, burnt offerings and judgement for this rainy evening. To clarify, I am reading the Old Testament, figured it’s the one I should start with. I’ve found it to be a very depressing read. My heart sinks a little bit every time a city is burned and its inhabitants, men, women and children, are all slaughtered. Where is the love? I want to skip to that chapter. So, this eve, the good book has been kept shut and placed on my lap where it is kindly propping up my computer as I type away.

I really haven’t thought this post through yet, so I guess I’ll just tell you about my day. Woke up, did a little 30-day shred exercise sesh with Jillian Michaels, showered and brought a load of laundry to Mirna’s house. They bought a washing machine in January and have let me do a few loads in exchange for explaining to them how to operate the appliance. Try explaining the “hand wash” cycle to a Guatemalan housewife that bought the apparatus precisely so that she wouldn’t have to hand wash. Not easy. Ever since they got the washer, I’ve been alternating between hand and machine washing. If I have calculated it properly, and don’t have any major stain mishaps, this will have been the last day I will have to do my laundry in Guatemala. Next week, I’ll be home for my brother’s wedding (yay! can’t wait- Yosemite here we come.) When I get back to Guatemala on the 3rd, I’ll have 14 days remaining as a Peace Corps Volunteer. I definitely have enough clothes and undies to keep me fresh for those last two weeks. It may seem strange that I am divulging this information, but you must realize that, aside from the produce section at Whole Foods, the washer and dryer are the material things I miss most about the States. My last wash was a big deal.

It was quarter to 1:00 when I had all my clothes hung up on the line to dry. Time to watch the Women’s World Cup final. I don’t own a TV so I went over to Fernando and Seño Lili’s house to watch the match. The sound of sportscasters calling the game filtered through open doors and windows as I made my way through the dirt streets to their house. I couldn’t help but think, “there are probably more Guatemalans watching this game than Americans.” I hope I was wrong. When I got to the house Mattihus was in the living room, with remote in hand, switching between the USA v. Japan women's game and Brazil v. Paraguay men's match. I took a seat on the couch and started watching but quickly became frustrated by the constant channel changing. Before the first half was over I decided to depart and watch the game at my next door neighbor Flor’s house. It seemed more fitting to watch the Women’s World Cup with a fellow woman, anyway. I made it to her house, invited myself in and plopped down on the end of her bed. "Bed?" you may ask. Yes, Flor, like most Guatemalans, doesn't own a couch. Her TV is in her bedroom so we watch it from her bed. I watched the match while she spent the next 20 minutes putting on make-up. I asked if she was getting ready to pasear (go out), but, she said, “No”. Maybe it is just her daily routine.

I’ll go ahead and fast forward 130 minutes to me, with fly swatter in hand, taking out my frustration with the US’s loss on the mosquitos in my shower stall. After I had killed all the skeeters I could find, I let off more steam by washing dirty dishes. It turned out to be a very productive afternoon.

At 4pm I made my way over to El Rinconcito de Mario, the town restaurant next door to Seño Maritza’s house. There the preschool was celebrating “Dia de la Familia” (Family Day). Maritza had asked me to stop by and play a song on my guitar for the kids and their parents. Before I got my guitar out, though, I was called on stage to participate in a dance competition. Side note: I’ve garnered some local fame for the Shakira dance moves I displayed in a dance competition at Brenda’s baby shower. I won that competition, and today’s as well. Guatemalans love watching a white girl dance. The prize was a red cylindrical plastic container.

Directly following the dance-off, I was called on stage to perform with my guitar. I dar-ed (gave) a few palabras (words) before I played. I thanked all those present for their hospitality over the past two years and for being my Guatemalan family. I got a little choked up, this "saying good-bye" thing isn’t going to get any easier. I also took the opportunity to make it be known that it was the first time I had ever played for a crowd, along with a pre-performance apology for singing in English. It went all-right. I messed up the lyrics a few times but it didn’t matter much because no one knew what I was saying anyway. They were a very forgiving audience. I guess I couldn’t have been all that bad because they did ask for an encore performance.

At 7pm I was back at home, made dinner, dilly-dallied, got into bed, watched Airplane, played a few, alright, a dozen, hands of vacation solitaire on my Nokia phone, even brought my guitar into bed and strummed away until my fingers began to sting...

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Damn It

I just got back from a profit margin meeting with the coop members. We were analyzing costs to see how the pollo frito (fried chicken) business is shaping up. It was there that I discovered the Q10,000 loan they took out to invest in the venture was done in the same manor as the loan they took out with Adan. They pay the lender Q500 a month until the loan can be paid off in one lump sum. None of that Q500 is going towards paying off the principal. I was so visibly upset that I think I scared the women. I'm still so upset, I'm ravishing a bag of Trader Joe's trail mix right now.

Damn it. After all of the discussions I had with them regarding Adan's loan, I thought something had stuck. I'm heartbroken... and now, out of trail mix.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Peace Corps Extraordinaire

Last week, Seño Maritza was showing signs of anxiety. The root of her worries stemmed from a trip she had to take to the capital this past Friday. A trip she had to take on a bus all by her lonesome. Well, she’d be accompanied by the bus driver, an ayudante (the guy that takes your fare) and a hoard of other passengers. There in that “hoard” of passengers lies the problem. They are all strangers and strangers can’t be trusted. Each unfamiliar face poses a risk. Anyone of them could be eying her purse or even be armed and prepared to loot the entire bus.

Assaults on buses are not rare here, especially in the capital, so her worries were not unfounded.

While Friday neared, Maritza made multiple mentions in conversation about her forthcoming trip, “¡... y tengo que ir solita, AYE NO, como me da miedo!” (And I have to go all alone, OH NO, how it gives me fright!).

For me, Friday came and went like any other day in site. I didn’t see Maritza until Saturday morning when I dropped by her house to give her photocopies of the salina profit analysis. Her son, Rene, let me in and I walked to the back of the house. It was there that I realized Maritza was showering. To kill some time I checked in on our tomato plants (we’ve got one of Kamille’s hanging plants set up in her yard- it’s flowering!), When Maritza got out of the shower she walked out in her towel, gave her usual salutations and headed into her bedroom, where she proceeded to talk to me through closed door.

I asked her how her trip to the capital went and she delved into a long explanation:

You shoulda seen how afraid I was! I go to the capital, you know, but, never alone! I got up at 2am and was in the capital by 7am. Then I took a cab to meet my sister-in-law. I did it all without any problem! We did errands together but then she left me when I had to fix some papers for work. When I was done I asked a police officer how to get to the inner city bus and he explained to me where to go. Then I took another bus to get back to CENMA. From there made it to Esquintla, where I took a cab to the hospital because Marta Lidia’s daughter is sick and I promised I’d check in on her...

At this point, she reappeared clothed and continued to tell the story while rubbing her hair dry with a towel.

... I was back in Chiqui at 3pm and went to the accountant. I finally made it to Casas Viejas on the Princesita (name of a bus).

One is afraid to do things they don’t know about, but, you know what? Before I left I thought to myself, “Annalisa travels all over without any problem. She just hops on a bus and goes from here to there and everywhere.” I even thought about how you travel to foreign countries and get around. And here I am, in my own country, and I’m afraid to travel a few hours. I thought, “If Annalisa can do it, so can I.” You served as my inspiration.

I puffed out my chest and thought to myself, “Annalisa Liberman, Peace Corps extraordinaire. Empowering women in developing nations. My work here is done... It only took two years.”

p.s. Over 4th of July weekend Kamille and I took a fabulous day trip to Copán, Honduras. If you'd like to read about it, check out Kamille's blog.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Dear Trader Joe's

Quierido Trader Jose,

Allow me to introduce myself, I am Annalisa Brown Liberman, your best Guatemala- based customer, ever. For nearly two years I have been living in rural Guatemala as a Sustainable Agriculture Peace Corps Volunteer. Ever since my arrival on August 12, 2009 my father and friends have faithfully sent me dozens of bulging yellow manilla padded envelopes filled with Trader Joe’s treats. I don’t know how I would have survived these past two years without them.

I want to personally thank you for your toothsome trail mixes and delectable dried fruit. I have tasted and loved them all. I have particularly savored your Macadamia Mix Gingerly with Cranberries and Almond, Sweet & Savory and Tempting trail/trek mixes. However, nothing has tantalized my taste buds more than your Just Mangos dried mangos. I especially enjoy the packages filled with deep marigold colored slices picked ripe from Mexico or Thailand. The Columbian variety, for some reason, are never quite as as sweet and juicy.

Today, I was enjoying a package of Just Mangos in my cinderblock casita while rain outside made rivers of the town’s dirt streets. As I chewed to the pitter-patter of drops on the tin roof, I wondered just how many of Joe’s Just Mangos and trail mixes I have consumed as a Peace Corps Volunteer. I did a rough calculation and came up with over 100 packages.

I currently have two packages of Just Mangos and two trail mixes left in my reserves. These were sent by my father in a package I received June 8th. I have since told him to send no more, for my Peace Corps service ends August 17th and I will soon be able to roam the isles of Trader Joe’s on my own. Free to pick out only the juiciest, most golden Just Mango packages in the store. I can’t wait.

Once again, gracias Trader Jose. You have made my Peace Corps experience quite a treat!

Un fuerte abrazo (a big hug) from your devoted patron,


Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Ask Dr. Bob

On a large 24”x18” piece of yellow construction paper I made a table seven columns by eight rows. Fifty-six boxes. One for each day of service I have left in the Peace Corps. I labeled the columns with days of the week and grouped the rows into June, July and August. I titled the poster, “Calendario de Proyectos con Annalisa” (Calendar of Projects with Annalisa).

I began to populate the calendar with my remaining projects, trips away from site and daily obligations. Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, 3:40-4:50 English classes at Basico with Jeny. Completion of Service Medical Appointments in Antigua June 22-24. Women’s group cooking class: Pizza and planting tomato seeds, 3pm Saturday, June 25. Inventory review workshop, 5pm Wednesday, June 29. Pollo Xinca Cost of Production Analysis, Saturday, July 9... the table slowly filled up. When it was done, I taped it to the Coca Cola display fridge in the coop tienda and shared it with the socios at a meeting on Monday.

As I plan my last projects, I also have to figure out how to wrap up my service with a healthy sense of closure. My dad has coached me on this phase of my Peace Corps service. A phase that he refers to, in psychiatrist jargon, as the ‘termination period.’ Over one particularly long phone conversation about a month ago he explained this critical stage of decathecting to me. I was on one end of the line swaying in my hammock while he was on the other end, presumably, sitting in his swiveling office chair. “The termination period is a period of separation between a doctor and patient,” he began. “At the end of a treatment, a physician must work with the patient to show their time together was effective in treating the illness and that the patient is capable of sustaining his recovery even after he is not under the direct care of the physician...” (Did I paraphrase correctly, Papa? “Close enough,” as you might say.)

In any regard, the take away I got was that these last few months of service is a time for me to reflect with the cooperative on all of the work we have done together and the progress we have made. It is also a time to discuss how to sustain these improvements even after my departure. I have taken his advice to heart and have started reflecting on my service with the Coop socios. The presence of my bright yellow calendar stands as a reminder that my days with the coop are limited and has allowed me to ease into ‘termination period’ conversations. Sometimes, however, I contemplate, between myself and the cooperative, who is the doctor and who is the patient. For, I, most certainly, will come out of this experience the most changed.

Friday, June 17, 2011


I've done this before. Too lazy to write a post so I'm going to copy and paste an email I wrote to my big brother, Peter, last night.

I am writing this email using a battery powered lantern that Dad sent me in one of his many packages. I usually reserve this light for night time showering. The electricity has been out for the past hour so it's working overtime tonight. Luckily, I still have 2 hours 29 minutes left on my Mac battery and my internet runs through the cell tower. We get blackouts about five times a week during the rainy season. It's not raining right now, so I am not sure what caused it this time. To be honest, though, I really enjoy the still darkness.

Guatemala is a very noisy country. At all hours there are drivers blaring banda music out their car windows, motorcycles revving their engines, neighbors watching telenovelas at maximum volume, kids screaming, parents reprimanding, kids then crying. It all blends together to form a constant hum of background distraction. I liken it to an audio equivalent of the visual overload in Times Square.

In contrast, when the lights are out, it's peaceful. I can hear the crickets and frogs and even my elderly next door neighbor plucking away at his guitar. Right now, he is playing Mary Had a Little Lamb. Every once in a while, the lights will flicker on for a millisecond and there are shouts of joy that echo throughout the town. But, all goes dark again, and all goes silent. My neighbor will then switch to playing Cielito Lindo or Happy BIrthday. I wonder if he has a book or is just playing from memory. I can picture him behind those blank cinderblock walls, sitting in his room, on a wood chair, strumming his guitar by candle light, thinking that no one is listening. Or, maybe, he knows I am home, and is playing for me.

I now have 2:09 left on my battery. Peace Corps tells us to conserve energy when the lights go out. We never can be sure of when they are going to come back on. Time to shut down...

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Pollo Xinca

Wednesday evening I finished the last of seven trainings on 10 fundamentals of business that I conducted with the coop. The final topic we reviewed was “Promote your business.” Three days later, the coop put this principle into practice.

Saturday was the inauguration of Pollo Xinca, the coop’s latest business venture. In light of what they learned during our workshop, the coop decided to promote their business with a “Buy two or more pieces of fried chicken, get a soda for free. (while supplies last)” offer on opening day.

In Guatemala development may be slow but, work, straight-up labor, can happen lickety-split. Take, for instance, Pollo Xinca. The cooperative may still struggle to define its purpose and benefit its members yet, they can successfully whip up fried chicken operation in about one month’s time. Here is a quick outline of the idea through to fruition time-frame:

May 6: Maritza announces she has found someone who will lend her Q10,000 to start-up the fried chicken business. I must note that this loan will work much like a typical bank loan- paying off the capital and interest at the same time. I’ve drilled it into them to NEVER take another loan like the mess they got themselves into with Adan.

May 27: The men dig a well and instal a motor to pump fresh water into a pila/sink in the back of the tienda.

May 28: Tienda is rearranged to allow a section of the store to be occupied by the fried chicken business. The men create an awning over the pila in the back of the tienda.
May 31: Fryer, freezer and display case are delivered from the capital.

June 2: Electric outlets and lighting are installed in the Pollo Xinca section of the store. Cement is laid on a section of the store that had a dirt floor.

June 3: Outside of the store and Pollo Xinca area are whitewashed.

June 4: 8:00 am, women begin to decorate the tienda.

June 4: 12:00 pm, Eddy from Fedacop teaches Emerson, Pollo Xinca’s ‘chef’, how to fry chicken and french fries.

June 4: 1:50 pm, Eddy presides over a prayer around the fryer, asking God to bless Pollo Xinca.

June 4: 2:15 pm, first five pieces of fried chicken are sold.

June 4: 6:00 pm, Over 200 pieces of chicken sold and the last of 60 promotional sodas was given away.

Thursday, May 26, 2011


I had just gotten back to the Coop after picking mangos with Don Fernando when Don Simon pulled up in a beat-up red pick-up and called me to his side window.

“The guys want to know if you can go to Sarampaña to do accounts.”

Since December, once a month, I have been meeting with the six socios who decided to take over the salina (saltworks) to review income and expenses.

I grabbed my bag, hopped in the truck and asked, “Did you guys sell all the salt?”

“Yes, and now we want to see how we stand.”

We pulled up to Don Beto’s house and there sat the five other socios: Toribio, Don Edgar, Don Jaime, Jose Angel and Don Beto. They stared at us from a semi-circle of plastic chairs planted awkwardly in the sand.

I climbed down from the pick-up and greeted them with a, “Buenas tardes.” They pulled up an empty seat and I sat waiting for someone to speak. Toribio began, “We are finished with the salinas this year and now we want you to help us figure out how to divide up the money.”

For the next hour we crunched numbers. Our discussion was punctuated with back and forths about who had already been paid for hauling salt, who had put in extra funds for this-and-that, who had been reimbursed for such-and-such. At every point of disagreement I took the opportunity to remind them, “If you had written this all down, you wouldn’t be having this argument.” They always agreed.

It takes time to change habits and I’m just glad I convinced Jose Angel, who was managing the salinas, to carry a notebook with him at all times. He recorded “most” transactions.

In the end, we calculated that the Salina had brought in a little over Q2,000 ($250) in profits for the year. To be divided up between the six men. This may not seem like much but, considering last year the Cooperative lost about Q40,000 in the Salinas, coming out ahead this year was a huge gain.

The difference between the two year’s outcomes lays largely in the price of salt. Last year, the Coop was selling a quintal of salt for Q15 or Q17. In English, 100 lbs of salt for $2. Amazing, right? This year, we were able to sell our salt at Q25. The increase in the price of salt, coupled with a slightly lower start-up cost, helped the guys come out ahead. The good weather conditions this year (less rain) didn't hurt either. I'm also going to go ahead and attribute some of the success to better management of the operation. Last year, it was impossible to assemble the associates to review expenses. This year we met monthly, without complaint. This forced the group to be accountable and scrutinize their spending.

At the end of the meeting, Toribio divided up the cash, setting aside Q200 for a celebratory lunch of fried shrimp, which they invited me to partake in tomorrow, insisting that the shrimp be accompanied by a “cervecita” (little beer). I didn’t contest.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Guatemalan Xerox Machines

Last Sunday my next door neighbor Milbia yelled to me from the chain link fence that separates my back yard from her kitchen.


“Hey Milbia, what’s up?”

“Would you do me the favor of letting me borrow your computer? Ours isn’t working right now and I need to do a paper for the U.”

Just this year Milbia started taking Saturday classes at the local University. This is no small feat for a 28-year-old single mother of two young kids (Benicio and Leslie). Most women in her situation become comfortable tending the house and lack the confidence and motivation to make their personal growth a priority. I was happy to supply my computer for her schoolwork needs, anything to help along her success story.

Later that afternoon, Milbia and a classmate of hers came to my house and I set them up on my computer. As I tended to my housework: sweeping, dusting and washing clothes; Milbia dictated from a bound report and her friend typed.

“Diariamente, miles de niños y niñas en Guatemala viven el problema del maltrato infantil...” (Daily, thousands of Guatemalan boys and girls suffer from child abuse...)

At one point the typist took a break and I took the opportunity to comment on their report.

“You guys are writing a paper on child abuse?”

“Yes, but it’s already written, we just have to retype it.”

“It looks pretty nice in that folio you already have. Why do you have to retype it?”

“Well, we didn’t write this, we are just copying it.”

I grabbed the paper bound report they had been dictating from and sure enough, it had worn out dirty edges and was written by other students with a previous year’s due date. The first thing I wondered was, "Did the students, whose names are on the bound copy, write this or copy it?"

This wasn’t my first experience with students here “pidiendo copias” (asking to copy). When helping Jenny correct English homework, I noticed trends in sentences. “Trends” might be generous, an entire class would turn in verbatim assignments. As if they were little Guatemalan xerox machines. And, Selvin, who used to work at the minibank, would make extra cash by doing kids homework on the Coop’s computer- mostly just copying paragraphs from Wikipedia en Español.

I am frustrated by the Guatemalan educational system. If this country is ever to develop and prosper its students must be empowered to think critically and cultivate their own imagination. It doesn’t surprise me that in any Guatemalan town you will find three panadarias (bakeries) making the same tasteless bread; or fifteen corner stores selling the same cornflakes, sugar and refried beans that the tienda down the street sells. It’s a copy culture. The education system doesn’t encourage kids to take risks and think for themselves so why would they as adults?

When I found out that Milbia was copying, I became upset. Doesn’t she realize the only person she is cheating is herself? “You know,” I said to her, “if a student in the U.S. is caught copying, they can be kicked out of school.” I didn’t receive the shocked reaction I was hoping for.

I wasn't shocked.

"Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution." - Albert Einstein

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Yes, This is My Life

Below is the house tour grand finale. But, before we get to it, I have a few updates:

Blog by Bullets

☀ I learned yesterday that the Coop has taken out a legit bank loan to pay off Adan’s "predatory" loan. The new Q10,000 loan will be paid off, interest and principle, in two years, or so I’ve been told. Adan received his Q10,000 principal payment in one lump sum on Saturday. To date, Adan has reaped Q10,500 in straight gains from his loan. A 105% return on his investment. He will no longer be taking Q500 monthly "interest" payments from the tienda. Thank God.

☀ At the same time, the Coop took out another Q10,000 loan to start a fried chicken business. So help me God.

☀ While talking on the Coop stoop, Don Alfonso informed me that you can rub a live toad's belly on your shin to cure a gimp leg. However, after you get the toad slime rubbed in real good you must immediately put the creature back in water or it doesn't work. Animal rights DO exist here, after all... The procedure gave birth to the saying, “Saque el sapo.” (Grab the toad) when discussing what to do with a hurt leg.

☀ Yesterday, the school kids and I transplanted a tomato plant seedling to an upside-down hanging carton. Photos to come. We are waiting on the two other surviving seedlings to grow big enough to transplant as well. The kids are looking forward to their chirmol (a typical salsa made with tomatoes). After losing dozens of seedlings, I’m thinking in baby steps. Tomatoes first, salsa later.

☀ Last week, I visited Jenny and her new baby boy, Nicolas.

☀ Saturday, I visited Brenda and her new baby boy, Adrian.

☀ Sunday, I visited Eslin and her new baby girl, name tbd.

☀ Leslie + Benicio Explore the Kitchen, Part 6


Annalisa: The kitchen. What do we have in the kitchen?

Leslie: Dishes

Annalisa: Dishes, what else?

Leslie: A table

Annalisa: A table, what else?

Leslie: Some bottles.

Annalisa: bottles, what else? What is this? (pointing to the refrigerator)

Leslie: This is a blender.

Annalisa: This is a blender, what is below? A fridge!

Leslie: A fridge.


Leslie: This is the water.

Annalisa: Water, purified water.

Leslie: Bottle.

Annalisa: Oil.

Leslie: Oil, and what else?

Annalisa: A lot more. Peanut butter, soy sauce, honey....

Annalisa: What is this? (pointing at honey)

Leslie: To put on food.

Annalisa: OK, what else do we have in the house?

Leslie: In the house we have... (no idea what she is mumbling)... Benicio... (no idea what she is mumbling)... I say.

Annalisa: I think we are finished. Do you want to do a dance or say goodbye to the camera?

Leslie + Benicio: goodbye!

Monday, May 2, 2011

The Great Outdoors

I found a way to compress the video files and was able to put the remaining parts on two videos. Here is the first, enjoy!


(Mostly english)

Annalisa: I'm speaking in English and it's difficult to understand, huh?

Leslie: (nods)

Annalisa: Why aren't you talking? Here is the bathroom.

Leslie: The bathroom

Annalisa: And this, what is this?

Leslie: A sprinkler.

Annalisa: A sprinkler, A shower.

Leslie: A shower.


Annalisa: What else is there, Benicio? A kitchen?

Leslie: A kitchen.

Annalisa: Let's go to the kitchen.

Leslie: OK

Two notes:

1. The bottles stuffed with trash are used by other volunteers in their Bottle School Projects. Check it out:

2. I failed to show you the amazing thatched roof "rancho" that I have. The roof, made of palm leaves. covers the area where my hammocks and kitchen reside- keeps the space shaded and (relatively) cool during the heat of the day.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Leslie + Benicio Forget That They're Tour Guides


Annalisa: Here they are!

Annalisa: Can you do the tour, please?

Kids: silence

Annalisa: Show us the bathroom.

Kids: silence

Annalisa: Leslie, where is the bathroom?

Leslie: silence

Annalisa: Where is the bathroom?

Leslie: silence

Annalisa: Over there? (pointing to the bathroom)

Leslie: Over there.

Annalisa: Yes, let's go.

Leslie: Yes.

Friday, April 29, 2011

The Key


Leslie: You can't get the key?

Annalisa: Here it is.

Annalisa: You guys go on in, go on in*. I'll find you on the other side.

The rest is more or less in English.

*cultural note: "Pasen adelante" (literally translates to pass ahead) is a common phrase in Guatemala. A proper exchange when one enters a home unfolds like this.

Visitor seeking entry, before crossing the threshold, will ask, "Con permiso?" (With permission?)

The proprietor of the house will then respond, "Pase Adelante." (Come on in.)

I apologize for the annoying sing-song manner in which I state the phrase- it's a habit i've picked up from Seño Maritza.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Leslie + Benicio Become Tour Guides

While back in the States I received a few requests for a tour of my house. I've enlisted the help of my friendly neighbors, Leslie and Benicio, to help guide you through my casita. Since my internet is sluggish, I'll be uploading clips in a 12 part series. Here is your introduction:


Annalisa: Good Morning!

Kids: Good Morning!

Annalisa: What are we going to do? We are going to give a tour.

Leslie: A tour.

Annalisa: A tour of my house.

Leslie: of my house.

Annalisa: of MY house.

Leslie: of Annalisa's house.

Annalisa: Yes, let's go.

Benicio: Here.

Annalisa. Here. OK, I need to find the key.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Long time no write

Saturday I returned to Casas Viejas from my vacation in The States. Aside from the sweltering heat, it felt good to be back. I got settled and cleaned the dust from my house with the help of my neighbor, Flor, who appeared, unsolicited, at my doorstep with broom and mop in hand seconds after I unlocked my front door. I assume she had been watching the dirt pile up from her side of the fence for the past three weeks. After taking care of housekeeping, I headed to the cooperative tienda to catch up with the socios. I ran into Seño Lili while walking through the center of town.

“I was wondering when you were coming back. Have you passed by the coop yet?” She asked with a hint of mischievousness.

“I got back today. No, I haven’t been to the coop, but I’m on my way now.” I replied now warily wondering why she asked about the tienda.

“We have a new employee.” She explained

Turns out Misely, “no quiso seguir.” (didn’t want to continue working). The reason most of our prior employees gave for leaving.

I guess some things never change.

When I arrived at the coop I found Diana, our new shopkeeper. She seemed oddly excited to see me even though we had never met. I introduced myself and got to chatting. Shortly thereafter, Don Adan arrived at the store. This surprised me because the new vigilance committee members had been voted in prior to my departure and he technically no longer was responsible for the management of the store. I asked him if he had been coming while I was away and he told me that he had been helping with the training of the new vigilance committee and with Diana. He said this with a sense of pride that I hadn’t expected from him.

“How have the other members taken to the training?” I asked.

“Really well, both Elias and Tila come everyday and work on the accounts. The only trouble we are having is with Elias, his handwriting looks like the letters are going to fall off the page.” He said this while impersonating a tipping letter “C.” “I keep telling him, ‘Elias, you better fix your handwriting because when Annalisa comes back she isn’t going to be able to read your drunken letters.”

I liked that he had used me as a threat.

We then started to work on the daily closing. I grabbed the inventory books to enter the purchases and losses (expired tomatoes etc.) for the day. I opened the book and found the inventory and monthly profits from sales, which is done every first of the month, completed. I was astonished. I have been working with the coop on this inventory system for the past year. Never have they done the tabulations without my help. In fact, if I have a meeting at the Peace Corps office and am not in town on the first, they have always just waited to do inventory until I get back. This month, they did it all on their own.

I guess some things do change.

p.s. Jenny gave birth to a baby boy today! Nicolas. He’s reportedly healthy, 8 lbs and VERY white. I’ll meet him tomorrow.

p.s.s. I’d like to share with you a little joke that Adan told me about a recent U-20 World Cup qualifier soccer match between Guatemala and the United States. Guatemala, to most Guatemalan’s surprise, beat the U.S. 2-1. Adan had this to say about the match:

“Both sides cried at the end of the game. The U.S. because they lost and Guatemala because the won. I still can’t believe we won, the U.S. had a GOOOOOD team. I think of it this way, The U.S. doesn’t permit Guatemalans to enter their country, so Guatemala doesn’t permit the U.S. to enter the World Cup.”

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Let's Talk About Sex, Baby.

I was getting blank stares from a sea of uniformed fifteen-year-olds as I fumbled through explaining how AIDS doesn’t actually kill an infected person- opportunistic infections are what inevitably brings about the demise of the patient. It was a struggle. I felt like I was explaining the process well but I didn’t get a single reassuring nod from the crowd. I hesitated and then turned to Oscar Ruben, my counterpart for the HIV/AIDS training I was conducting, for help. In previous sessions he was quick to jump in and eloquently state what my spanish language deficiency prohibited me from spitting out. Not that day. I glanced over to the side of the room where he was standing silently and noticed he didn’t jump in to save me because he was otherwise occupied. Occupied texting on his Blackberry. If he had taken a second to look up from his mobile device he would have seen the look of, “are you f-ing kidding me?” on my face. Excuse the profanity but I want to be honest to my true state of mind in that moment. It seems not even the third world can escape the digital world.

Oscar Ruben never did look up from his phone so I continued to explain myself in circles until I asked the students, “Understand? Clear as water?” And the responded with a resounding, “Sí.” We ended up wrapping up the training with much success, despite Oscar Ruben’s diminishing interest. In three days we gave three HIV/AIDS education and prevention training sessions to the entire high school- a total of 79 students.

Throughout the process I was surprised at how easy it was for me to talk about sex in front of a classroom full of pubescents. Every time I had to say, “secreciones vaginales,” I thought to myself, “those words would not roll so easily off my tongue if I was speaking in English.” Maybe they would, I just never have had the opportunity to test it out.

My favorite part of the sessions was a question and answer period. Right after an activity we did acting out how HIV attacks white blood cells, I’d give each student a piece of blank paper and ask that they write a question on it. Any question pertaining to HIV/AIDS or sexual activity in general. I received a lot of broken/ripped condom questions, a few asking for the symptoms of HIV/AIDS and even one that asked if a girl could get HIV from having sex with a 40 year old man. I’m still a little worried about the girl that asked that question.

The purpose of conducting HIV/AIDS training is to educate the adolescent population on the disease, how it is transmitted, how it can be prevented and to discredit stereotypes about the disease. A secondary benefit of these sessions is to allow the teenagers to speak openly about sexual reproduction and the inherent risks of being sexually active. The sessions in themselves were truly gratifying however, there was one moment, outside of the classroom that I am most proud of.

During the question and answer session of our first training, Oscar Ruben took charge of reading the papers and I did the answering. Nearing the end of the pile he picked up the following question and read it aloud, “Can HIV be sexually transmitted from male to male?” I could tell the question made him uneasy- homosexuality is a touchy subject in Guatemala. It pained me to watch him read it through and then it broke my heart to hear him squeak a little uncomfortable giggle after the question. He did this in front of the entire classroom. Not the best behavior for promoting tolerance. I resolved to have a discussion with him before the next session.

The next day before our second training I pulled Oscar Ruben aside and told him that I thought we did a wonderful job the day before, the kids seemed really receptive, blah, blah blah... there is only one thing we need to watch out for today.

“We have to remain completely professional, especially during the question period, I noticed yesterday you laughed when reading the question about HIV being transmitted between two men.”

“I did?” He responded with seemingly genuine astonishment.

“We can’t laugh at any question especially ones pertaining to homosexuality because if there is a homosexual in the class we don’t want to make them feel uncomfortable. We need to be completely accepting and professional. If you don’t feel comfortable reading those questions, let me know because I can read them instead.”

“No,” he replied, “I can do it.”

Sure enough, during the second session we received a question identical to the one Oscar had laughed at the day before. As he breezed through the papers at the onset of the answer session I saw him move the question from the middle of the stack to the end. When it finally came up, the slip of paper gently rattled in his quivering hand. However, he read the question aloud in a completely unwavering voice. “Can HIV be sexually transmitted from one man to another?” No giggle.

We both gave a sigh of relief.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Xinca Garden

Way back in December, the Guatemalan government began a two month state of siege against narco traffickers in the Alta Verapaz region of Guatemala. Peace Corps evacuated all volunteers from that region. Lucky for me, Alta (as the volunteers there call it) is on the opposite side of the country from Casas Viejas and, double lucky for me, my friend Kamille who lives there decided to take refuge in my site. Kamille is an agriculture volunteer too, but her part of the program involves food security, ie family gardens, nutrition classes etc. While she waited out the unrest we went to work on a Cooperativa Xinca garden.

We chose the site of the garden. It wasn't up for debate because our plan
was two fold. First, clean up the back yard of the tienda which, unfortunately, served as a not-so clandestine trash dump, slash, town eye soar. The previous renters decided that leaving half burnt, quasi buried trash in a heaping pile in their yard was adequate disposal. The space was decrepit and Kamille, with her green thumb, was the remedy. After the clean up the second step was to beautify it with a garden. A project we hoped would instil a sense of pride in the property that was previously lacking and also motivate the Cooperative to better maintain the land. It worked. We spent a handful of afternoons preparing the land and I was amazed at how willingly the socios labored- even when the time they put into the garden was on top of their already stressful work days.
We cleared, cleaned, aerated and fertilized the land, built a fence and planted watermelon and cantaloupe seeds. We also took the opportunity to extend the project into a local school by teaching students the life cycle of a plant and then enlisting their help in planting our tomato seedlings in egg cartons. Once the seedlings are ready to transplant we are going to put them in hanging pots. A project that is still about three weeks away and the socios are already eager to get started. I have to constantly remind them that we can't plant the tomatos until the pilones are strong enough. They can't believe tomato plants can be hung and have already decided to try the technique at home too.

All in all, February was an extremely rewarding month. We witnessed a camaraderie among the cooperative members that had been lacking since the coop went into debt last year. It gave me great pleasure to see the socios come together and work diligently on something positive and productive and I hope their determination and good spirit continues through to other projects we are working on.

Last week Kamille got the word that the siege is over and it is safe for her to go back home to Coban. Yesterday, much to my chagrin, was her last day in Casas Viejas. Hopefully, she can come back in a month or so too a blooming garden full of juicy melons. Fingers crossed.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Esquipulas or Bust

Take a look at any Guatemalan tour book and you’ll find the section that covers the Pacific Coast is the thinnest of all regions. Sure, we’ve got the beaches of Monterrico and Autosafari Chapin but most of the write-ups are sugar coated and probably written just to meet some sort of publisher’s page quota. I once noticed that the “Rough Guide” has a blurb about Taxisco’s great leather goods. I’d never recommend to ever stop there. The only leather I’ve seen in that town is that on the boots of the drunks passed out in a puddle of their own urine in the gutter outside Bar Santa Rosa. That’s not “rough”, that’s disgraceful. If I wrote my own tour book to the Southern Pacific Coast it would start, “Most towns are best experienced through the window of your bus.” Instead of dotting the map with restaurants and hotels I’d star places where tourists could find clean restrooms.

Another good indicator that not many towns in the tour book are worth checking out is that Guatemalans avoid them at all cost. “Where then”, might you ask, “do people from your town vacation to?” The answer: “Esquipulas, of course”. Esquipulas isn’t near the Pacific, it’s in Chiquimula, half way to the Atlantic, but a trip there is a true Guatemalan’s excursion. How could it not be when the town is home to El Señor de Esquipulas, the famed Black Jesus that serves as a mecca for Latin American Catholics? It doesn’t hurt that there is shopping and a Pollo Campero there too.

After nearly 18 months in country I fancy myself part Chapina and therefore, jumped at the opportunity to join the Catholic church group in a day excursion to Esquipulas. The adventure started at 1:26 am when my neighbor Mirna yelled through my bedroom window, “Annalisa, Annalisa, ya es la hora (it’s time).” I jumped out of bed, opened the door and told her i’d be ready shortly. At 1:45 am I was outside of their house waiting with a handful of people for the chartered school bus that was to take all 60 or so excursionists. We were supposed to leave at 2:00 am, the bus arrived at 2:15 am, we waited for stragglers until our 3:00 am departure (hora Chapina). I’ve decided that the habitual tardiness that afflicts this country is a hinderance to it’s overall development. It breeds complacency, a lack of motivation, responsibility etc, etc. but that is another blogpost.

I half-slept during the 4-hour bus ride to our destination. I shared a seat with my neighbors Milbia (age 26) and her kids Benicio (age 2) and Lesli (age 4). When we arrived we ate a packed breakfast on the bus. I brought an apple, my neighbors had chicken salad sandwiches. I took interest in analyzing how the different generations ate their sandwiches. Luis (age 8) spread the chicken salad between two slices of bread and ate it how most Americans would eat a typical sandwich. Mirna, his mom, put the filling on the bread and folded it in half, like a taco. Regina, his grandmother, put the chicken salad in a bowl and used the bread as an edible utensil to scoop it up. Full from breakfast, we set out to see Jesus.

El Señor can be found in the huge white Catholic church in the center of town. At 7:30 am there was already a long line of devotees snaking out of the church along the perimeter and into the plaza in front. During our winding stop-and-go pilgrimage to see El Señor I was tricked by two fake-out Jesus statues. The first was a black Jesus housed in a tent to the left of the church. Everyone was lighting candles in front of him so I thought he was the one. Turned out to just be a replica. The second occurred when we finally entered into the side of the church and came upon another Jesus. The woman I was standing next to grabbed my arm and said, “Nuestro Señor, Jesus Cristo.” She said it so passionately that I thought the encased statue of christ crawling was the one. I had already taken a picture when I realized he was painted white and couldn’t possibly be the black Jesus. Third time’s a charm. Shortly thereafter we curved around the white Jesus, walked up a small ramp and were face to profile with the real El Señor de Esquipulas. We circled around the encased statue directly behind the church pulpit. As we made the loop we overlooked the mass that was taking place in the church. We then backed down the ramp- so as to not “dar la espalda” give the back to El Señor. Our pilgrimage was complete.

Outside of the church we decided to take a tuk-tuk ride la Piedra de Los Compadres. The explanation sheet I bought for Q1 states that the site “consists of two enormous rocks that throughout time and earthquakes, one has stayed on top of the other keeping a mysterious and strange equilibrium... with three or four points of contact.” As the legend goes, 300 years ago the
rocks encased the bodies of two compadres, a man and a woman, making love while on their journey to Esquipulas. I also paid another Q1 to buy a leafy branch and candle. We walked around the rock and hit it with the branch. Everyone I was with kept crouching down in between the two rocks looking for the “breasts” but I couldn’t discern anything that looked like a woman’s chest. the woman who sold us the branch said to do it 7 times but we only did it twice. When I asked my accomplice why we didn’t finish the seven she simply said, “Two is enough.” Then I lit the candle and placed it under the top rock as all the others had done. I think I was supposed to make a wish but was too caught up in the moment and forgot.

Pollo Campero was our third destination. Then we did some shopping in the market and were back on the bus by 3:30 pm. We were supposed to leave at 4 pm but waited for stragglers until our 4:30 pm departure. As we pulled out of the parking lot I could already feel my back begin to ache and my legs begin to cramp. Then I looked over to the seat next to me at an 80-year-old woman with a cane shaking feebly and wondered, “if I am pained by the discomfort of this journey, what does she feel like right now?” On the 4-hour ride back home I reveled in my day of Guatemalan integration. I had paid tribute to El Señor, ate Pollo Campero, shopped for dulces with the ladies, got my fortune told by little birds and even contemplated asking the bus driver to make me a copy of the CD he was blasting. At 9:30 pm we arrived in Casas Viejas and as I caught myself admiring the bus ayudante’s bulging bicep muscles I realized my integration had gone too far. It was time for bed.

Sunday, January 30, 2011


The friendships that I have formed in Casas Viejas have taken many shapes. I have friends, like Nancy, who laugh at my jokes, friends like Milbia, who I can ask to water my plants when I’m away, and friends like Marena, who know how I like my shucos (no mayo, extra jalapeños). These friends have given me the gift of belonging for which I will forever be indebted. Yet, making friends in Guatemala is nothing like making friends in The United States. Here my friends and I share the mutual understanding that there will always be language and cultural barriers between us. For over a year I have battled with the truth that most of my friendships in site are quite superficial. Not to say that all of my relationships in town are insignificant, quite the contrary, it’s just taken me a year to realize which friendships are genuine and begin to appreciate those that are.

I have been accustomed to being the instigator of most of my friendships as well as bearing the brunt of the work to maintain the relationships. It must be noted, however, that Guatemala is a very family centric culture and, being an outsider, people don’t really know how to involve me in their daily lives. Hanging out with the gringa doesn’t generally make their daily the to-do list (so sad, if only they knew what they were missing out on). Surprisingly though, recently I found out that is not always the case.

I was finishing cleaning my house a couple Sundays ago when my friend Tanya drove up on her bike. Every once in a while she’ll stop by to sell me fresh shrimp but it is rare that I see her more than a couple times a month. I invited her in and we sat at my table and began to chat. She asked me if she looked pale or sickly. She did look a bit fatigued so I asked her if she was ill. Then she told me that she had just spent the past four days, affirming with her fingers as she counted, “Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday. Yes, four days, sick in bed.” She said her head felt like it was going to explode, her bones ached and she was freezing (mind you it is a “chilly” 95 degrees here) but couldn’t stop sweating. “Oh my, it sounds like you had dengue!” I replied. She told me that she was so sickly and weak that her two daughters, Melissa and Jasmine, cried by her bed and asked her if she was going to die. She said, “I was miserable but all I could think was, ‘it's better that I am sick than one of them.’ Finally, today I started feeling better. I feel heat again, which is a good thing. This is the first time that I felt healthy enough to leave my house.”

It dawned on me that Tanya had just escaped the jaws of death and the first thing she decided to do was visit me. Tanya needed to get out, breathe a breath of fresh air, rejuvenate her spirits and she came to my house to do it. I was flattered. I have always felt like I need my Guatemalan friends more than they need me. This was the first instance in which the roles were reversed. We spent a good portion of the morning catching up and then she vowed to come back later in the week with Melissa and Jasmine. I sent her home with a chocolate bar for the girls.

She kept her promise and a few days later the girls came over. We looked up dresses online together (I was bridesmaid dress shopping) and Jasmine pointed to each dress we looked at and said, “A mi me gusta esto” (I like this one). We swayed in my hammocks. Jasmine played in my baby pila and Melissa flipped through my photo album. It was pleasant to have visitors over who were content just passing time with me. They left after a couple of hours, Melissa toting a photo of my family. She had asked me, “me regala?” (Will you gift it to me?)

While most of my friends are busy with their daily routines, I am especially thankful that Tanya and her daughters think to make me a part of theirs. What gives me even more delight is being able to share my house, my hammocks, my chocolate with them. Unlike many of my friends in town, Tanya comes from the poorest part of Casas Viejas. She lives in a one room house with dirt floors, cooks over a wooden fire and has no refrigerator. Their presence at my house makes my life more pleasant and I am happy to share my space with them to return the favor.

Tayna's daughters, especially Melissa, are the reason why Tawnya and I are friends. I had just arrived in Casas Viejas and hadn't even formally met her daughters (they had just seen me in passing at the Tienda), when they begged their mom to invite me to their birthday party. I gladly attended, took pictures and swung at the pinata with the rest of the kids. Ever since, Melissa runs to me when she sees me around town and gives me the most amazing greetings - hugs and smiles that make me feel like the most important person in the world. Once Tanya told me that Melissa remembered that when I first came to Casas Viejas I told her that I’d be here for two Christmases and that after this past Christmas she cried because she thought that I was leaving. It makes me wonder what I did to deserve such adoration. To be honest, I did nothing. I don't want to believe that they run to me in the street just because I have light skin and blond hair but, I know that is at least part of the reason. The least I can do is try to rightfully earn their fondness. I'm still working on it.

This past Thursday Tanya showed up at my house again, this time she was selling shrimp that her husband had caught. I bought the shrimp and invited her in. She said she had to run an errand and then would come back with Jasmine. One hour later all of us were hanging out again. When noon came I offered to make them lunch and whipped up a dish with the shrimp. It is pleasant to have company over. Company I can be myself around. Effortless company.

When they left, Tanya said they’d be back, next time with milk and bananas to make liquados (milkshakes). I told them I’d supply the chocolate.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

A Musical Education

I'm being lazy this week so instead of writing a blog I am going to publish an email I sent to my friend Kamille way back in October.


Ever since my parents brought me my guitar from The States I've been wanting to happen upon a Latin guitar virtuoso to inspire me with his magical strumming fingers and teach me lovely light-hearted Spanish tunes like "la bamba" or "cielito lindo." My hunt has been all but fruitful.

My first hopeful encounter with a potential maestro was way back in May, I think. My next door neighbor, after over hearing me toil clumsily on my guitar, beckoned me to his stoop to tocar la guitara with him. I was stoked. He is old and his family is catholic so I figured he'd know some good classic tunes. But to my chagrin, about two minutes into the session I discovered he was tone deaf and had sluggish fingers. Generous-hearted and well meaning he was, but my maestro he was not. So it was back to stumbling through chord progressions on my own.

Until tonight.

I whipped out la guitara this evening for a quick after dinner sesh. Sitting in my green plastic chair under a dangling light bulb in the backyard I began warming up with a little "Knocking on Heaven's Door" (the second of the two tunes in my huge repertoire) After the song I was shuffling through my sheet papers when I heard a, "ssshhht, shhhhht, shhhhht" coming from my neighbors house (different neighbors than before). I turned my head only to find their entire family lined up at the fence listening to my awful attempt at Bob Dylan. The father figure (I still don't know the brother/sister/mother/father/son make-up of the family) asked me what "notes" I know. I told him that I've mainly been learning chords and asked him if he played the guitar. He replied, "yes". Enter second potential virtuoso. Eager to see what tricks he had in his bag I handed my guitar over the fence and begged him to play a song. The family insisted I come over to the house and sit and listen. I obliged, as any respectable neighbor would do. I walked through their house to their backyard and they pulled up a chair for me. The father figure then started tuning my guitar, teaching as he went along how to tune by ear. "Yes, finally, someone that can play the guitar!" I'm thinking to myself. Still getting used to the sound and feel of the guitar he started playing some familiar sounding chords. I couldn't put my finger on where I had heard them before but all was good, i was getting into the music. Then he started up with his first song and it hit me like a load of bricks. Those familiar chords, paired with that familiar plucking rhythm combined with those all too familiar lyrics- this was loudspeaker worthy evangelical church music. It abruptly and painfully dawned on me that I had just invited myself to a personal evangelical sing-song session. I began to whimper internally.

I have nothing against Evangelicals or Evangelical music, it's just that I sometimes feel inundated by their preaching. I have the chance to absorb the religion at least twice a day. I wake up to a loudspeaker sermon at 6:30am and eat dinner to a loudspeaker culto at 7pm. I just wasn't in the mood to sit through "Lavare, lavare" "Glorious Dios" "El Señor" songs at such close range. But, I did. The family and kids clapped and sang along while I sat there with a forced grin on my face. I was calculating in my head how many songs I'd have to bare before I could politely excuse myself for the evening when something strange began happening to me. The redundant plucking of the overused chords and creepy lyrics put me into this crazy trance. I felt like I was being transported into the sepia tone world of "There Will Be Blood". I realized this is why all those people go crazy at the church down the street and start screaming and babbling in tongues. This music is possessing. I had to get the heck out of there before it drug me to the dark side. As soon as the song was over I said, "that was beautiful, you'll have to teach me it sometime." Grabbed my guitar and hurried home. Safe on my side of the fence I poured myself a glass of boxed wine (strictly prohibited by Evangelicals) to wash away the culto-ness of the evening's events. As i sipped the drink of the gods, I thought to myself, "this tastes amazing, leave it to vino to save me." Then, reciting what wise Don Edgar once told me, I said to myself, "and hell, if it's the devil, then let it take me."

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Angel from Los Angeles

While in Casas Viejas, I have witnessed weddings, baby showers (called baby showers in Guatemala), birthdays and graduations. It was just a matter of time before I’d attend a funeral.

My first day back at the tienda after the new year, I walked into the store and found Adan and Miselly already at work counting the register. Nancy had quit after Veronica ostracized her for talking to her baby’s daddy. Miselly is her replacement. Employee number six in so many months. I greeted them, asking how their holiday was and Adan said, “For us it was fine, thank God.” I thought it was peculiar that he stressed the “For us” part. The reasoning became clear when moments later he filled the silence with, “Alfonso is not going to be working with us for some time, he lost a son.”

Alfonso’s son, who everyone called Junior, had been living and working in The United States for 22 years when he suddenly fell ill and died in a hospital in Los Angeles. He was about 40 years old and survived by a wife and eight children. All week everyone was commenting about when “he” would arrive. Junior’s remains were being sent down to Guatemala so he could receive a proper burial in the Casas Viejas cemetery. The casket arrived Monday, the vela (candlelight vigil) was planned for that very evening and the burial was to take place on Tuesday.

Tuesday morning as I was doing some work at home Loyda came by my house and yelled for me through the chain link gate at the side of my house. “Annalisa” she shouted to me in a raspy voice (she’s been nursing a mean cold/flu for the past week). I ran to the gate to meet her. “I can’t come to cook today, the burial is at 3pm” she said while covering her mouth with a little towel. “That’s not a problem. I’m going to postpone the cooking class.” I responded. I was already prepared to do this if the funeral was in the afternoon. I then asked if she and Adan could come by my house before they headed to Don Alfonso’s so I could accompany them to the funeral. She said she’d be by at 1:30 or 2:00.

Don Alfonso lives about a kilometer outside of town in a small cement whitewashed house. His living space is modest with an outdoor kitchen and an outhouse teetering on the sloped bank of a small stream that cuts through his land. We pulled up to his house in Adan’s pick up truck loaded with townspeople we had picked up along the five minute drive. Tents had been set up surrounding the thatch roof rancho under which, in better times, hammocks hang, but now housed the flower adorned pearly white casket. There was little refuge from the pounding sun and mourners had strategically placed their plastic chairs to optimize the little shade that was available. As I took a seat under the protection of a tall bush I noticed three electric fans were airing the coffin.

The heat had also drawn enterprising granisada (snowcone) vendors to cool the crowd with their Q3 icy treats. One of the granisaderas is a surprisingly white, nearly mute, kind-hearted woman named Marta who I have been known to hunt down on particularly scorching afternoons. We share a bond over our mutual inability to understand everything that people are saying around us. On Tuesday Marta’s ever present smiley face was enhanced by colorful make-up. I could see from ten yards away that she suffered from an over application of blush. But, I supose one must try extra hard to show respect for the deceased, especially when profiting from their untimely death. Both Loyda’s sons ran over to Marta with change in hand as soon as we sat down. On any other occasion I probably would have joined them (I have become addicted to the sweet tamarindo jam that is placed on top of granisadas) but I felt it probably wasn’t appropriate for a grown woman to slurp a snowcone during a funeral procession.

I spotted Alfonso near the entrance to his house. It was the first time I had seen him without his signature white cowboy hat. Its absence aged his forlorn face.

As I waited for the ceremony to start I soaked in the surroundings. A limping pig was sauntering around the pila and outhouse and a overheard a little boy peeing behind me in the bushes. Its amazing how the sound of pee hitting a solid doesn’t make me flinch- I’ve become so accustomed to boys and men alike making impromptu urinals wherever they feel fit.

Don Alfonso’s granddaughter was filming the crowd and I couldn’t help but wonder under what circumstance would anyone want to watch that video.

About thirty minutes passed and the priest presented himself and began to talk. I noticed that he mainly addressed the Catholics in the audience who were gathered closest to his makeshift podium. The Evangelicals were scattered around the periphery. He did, however, start his eulogy by saying that he loved everyone, Catholics and Evangelicas alike because, “We are all God’s children.”

The tribute didn’t last long and when the priest asked if anyone would like to say a few words, not one person stood up. After a few songs lead by Oscar Ruben’s mom, Julietta, the casket was lifted and the funeral procession began. As I stated earlier, Alfonso’s home is quite a ways out of town so the march to the cemetery ended up taking about an hour to complete. There were numerous stops to allow the rotating pallbearers to exchange duties. I had secured a black umbrella from the funeral coordinators and thus, kept the beating sun off my head as we slowly progressed down the town’s main street.

When we arrived at the cemetery a crowd already surrounded the burial site. Mourners sat and stood on nearby cement graves and the pallbearers carried the casket and placed it in front of the newly cemented block that was to be Junior’s final resting place. A well-respected man of town who I know only as Profe (professor), climbed atop the gray grave and addressed the grievers. I was standing behind the grave and stared at his back while he gave his impassioned panegyric over the coffin.

At one point during the praise Profe said, “Junior had left Guatemala in search of a better life in the place that we call the land of dreams.” It was the first time I had heard anyone in my town talk about the United States while not addressing me. It gave me a bit of an out-of-body experience, like I was eavesdropping on a conversation that I shouldn’t be listening to. I got a little uncomfortable. Profe wasn’t saying anything negative about the country, but it was awkward hearing it discussed in such a solemn setting. I was reminded that as a Peace Corps volunteer, I represent the United States and in that role I felt mildly guilty for being from the country that lured Alfonso’s son away from his homeland. I was probably the only one present who had these sentiments but regardless, they still hung heavy on my heart.

After Profe gave his final words the coffin was slid into the block and cemented over. I could hear Junior’s mother wail uncontrollably as I followed the crowd out of the cemetery with tears in my eyes.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Baile, baile.

I’m sure you have all, as I have, finished nurturing your holiday goma (hangover). That exhausted, yet satisfied feeling that follows the year’s end frenzy of festivities. My recovery took a record-long five days. I blame the lengthy recuperation on my necessity to process all that I experienced in 2010. It was a whirlwind year.

In work, progress was slow, but time was well spent. I smiled more and laughed more (even if I didn’t understand all the jokes).

In experience, I learned to listen. Really listen. It took patience to silence the interjecting voice in my head that would talk over whoever I was conversing with. I’ve stopped always thinking about what I want to say next, and instead, have started focusing on what other people are saying.

In friends and family, I expanded both. Made new lifelong friends while cultivating a deeper appreciation for the people already in my life.

In life, I have been humbled. Spending some of my richest moments with some of the poorest people in the world.

All of this reflection led nicely into some forethought.

Yesterday, I picked up the Diario (newspaper) and read my horoscope (the only thing worth reading in that paper) and it told me that this year was a year of new beginnings for Virgos. It specifically said, “pick up and move.” Since I have no intention of leaving Guatemala just yet, I decided to interpret “move” loosely as “dance.” I chose this interpretation because recently I realized just how much I love dancing.

On two occasions I was gifted the opportunity to dance with my family this holiday season. My mom + dad + Nate + Colleen - Danica (we missed you Dani) came down to visit Guatemala for 10 days between Christmas and New Years. On the day they arrived, Noche Buena (Christmas Eve), Casas Viejas had a town baile (dance). I usually shy away from the town dances after realizing it is hard to make up good excuses as to why I can’t dance with sweaty drunk guys I don’t know ("I'm tired" doesn't work), and even harder to make up excuses as to why I can’t dance with guys toting pistols. But, on Christmas Eve, I was excited to enter the baile. I found protection in our little gringo bubble as we shuffled into the brick wall lined basketball court in the center of town. The scene was what I was used to. Clean shaven guys in Holister tees and girls in skinny jeans and bright colored tops with matching sparkly eyeshadow crowded the court. About 25 couples danced under the night sky, swerving in and out of the black stands that propped up the strobing club lights. Another 100 people were standing around the edge of the court spectating while making mental notes as to who was dancing with whom. And finally, a handful of kids were zigzagging in and out of dancers and onlookers while waiving firecrackers. Our group of six (Fernando accompanied us) stood with the spectators until my dad asked me to dance. This triggered the entire gringo gang to collectively test our skills on the dance floor. My dad, shamelessly got down with his signature moves which I can only describe as being 50% twist 30% conga line 18% side step 2% free-style. Nate let the music move him (without the aid of liquid courage). Colleen grooved to the music probably thinking, “Oh god, is this how they are going to dance at my wedding reception?” But, my favorite was watching my mom. The smile on her face was that of perfect contentment. Pure bliss. The kind of smile that exudes, “In this moment nothing matters.” She was the happiest I have ever seen her. I watched her glide on her toes, wondered to which serene place the movement had transported her and wanted to meet her there. That is the power of dance.

Our second dance-off occurred on another eve, New Year’s Eve. We had an amazing dinner at Meson Panza Verde. The feast of duck in chocolate sauce, lobster tail, beef filet and salmon was accompanied by the sounds of a spicy Cuban trio. The band was lead by the guitar virtuoso Denis whose magical plucking fingers invited us to the dance floor. We were the first to venture to the empty space in front of the band. We danced, laughed and made fools of ourselves, but in our uninhibited and carefree movement, we were the envy of the entire restaurant. Soon our cheer infected the other diners, and they too were moved to join us in dance.

So, yes, Diario, I will pick up and move this year. I’ll move, and shake, and shimmy, and twirl, and tap, and pop, and twist just like my dad. Well, maybe not exactly like my dad.