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.