Post PC Travels: Nicaragua, Part 1

After a lovely 15 days spent in El Salvador where I wasn’t really on my own very much, I was ready to get on the move again. The day I left San Salvador, I was planning to make it to Nicaragua, but I didn’t make it that far due to public transportation. Since El Salvador and Nicaragua don’t share a border, I had to cross back into Honduras and drive two hours through the country to the other border crossing for Nicaragua. Since I was just pulling into the border town, San Marcos de Colón at the southern part of Honduras, by 8 PM, I decided to stay the night. That meant I got a good night’s sleep and one more typical Honduran breakfast of baleadas and fresh cantaloupe juice in the morning before I headed for the border.

My first destination was the town of Estelí, a so-called “cowboy” town in the northwestern highlands of Nicaragua. One of my first encounters with a local occurred at a roadside food stand, where I had ordered an afternoon snack of an enchilada (more like an empanada stuffed with chicken and rice) and quesillo, a small block of cheese toasted on the grill, a Nicaraguan specialty.

The man came up to me and asked if I was going to treat him to an afternoon snack as well. Naturally I was wary of being approached so brazenly, but he started speaking to me in English some so I listened. The guy was in his 60s and had previously lived in L.A. for 15 years—has citizenship even. He has been retired for seven years and came back to Nicaragua (where his retirement money and social security get sent) because he said there is no life in the States—why would anyone want to live there when they can live in peace and tranquility elsewhere? This is the general consensus of many people in these countries: go to the States until you feel financially secure, then go home and live the good life with all the money you made (that stretches so far in these countries).

He continued to probe me for information, and when I let it out that I spoke Spanish so well because I had been a Peace Corps Volunteer in Guatemala for two years, he started telling everyone who passed on the street (usually locals, all of whom he knew by name) that I worked for the CIA. Apparently, Nicaraguans all used to think that PCVs worked for the CIA, especially during the war—why else would they be infiltrating rural villages and trying to gain the trust of all the locals in their communities? By the time 20 minutes had passed and everyone who walked by knew my name, the state I was from, and my supposed CIA agent status, and this guy had interrogated me about my marital status, I think he was bored so he left to probably find someone else to poke fun at. The whole encounter made me laugh because it is so typical of the lifestyle of rural towns.

Estelí is a relatively mellow place so I decided to take a writing day while I gave my dog bite injury some more time to heal before getting active again. There wasn’t too much to do in Estelí anyway. It is known for its cigar factories, but I wasn’t really interested in that. It also has some natural reserves and opportunities to hang out with local families and make tortillas and stuff, but since I had been doing that for two years, I decided I could pass. The big thing I was interested in was the Somoto Canyon, an hour and a half north by the Honduran border, so I signed up to take the tour the day after my writing day.

Here I am, surrounded on all sides by the Somoto Canyon.

Here I am, surrounded on all sides by the Somoto Canyon.

I hopped on a bus to Somoto early the next morning and was picked up by the tour operator who took me on his motorcycle to where the tour guide was waiting for me. They geared me up with water shoes and a lifejacket, and the guide and I set off on foot for the canyon. It turned out that I was the only person who signed up (and showed up) that day so I got a personalized tour, and we moved at my pace! My tour guide even voluntarily became my personal photographer, constantly asking, “Do you want me to take a picture of you here? How about over there?”

This is me, happily posing on a rock by a small waterfall in Somoto Canyon.

This is me, happily posing on a rock by a small waterfall in Somoto Canyon. (That huge bruise on my thigh is from my dog bite!)

The hike through the canyon ended up taking about three and a half hours, and the place was stunning! After making it to the actual canyon, we made our way through it by jumping off canyon formations into freshwater pools, then swimming or walking through the streams toward the other end of the canyon. Being right there in between these giant canyon walls just drifting along gave me such a peaceful feeling. Nicaragua is so proud of the Somoto Canyon that the 50 Córdoba bill (Nicaraguan currency, approximately equal to US$2) even features it.

This was taken in Somoto Canyon after I jumped 15 meters (approximately 45 feet) off one of the canyon cliffs into a deep pool below.

This was taken in Somoto Canyon after I jumped 15 meters (approximately 45 feet) off one of the canyon cliffs into a deep pool below.

While Estelí is a mellow town, it is also filled with very bothersome men. I, just as every other foreign woman living or traveling in Latin America, have encountered a significant amount of unwanted male attention, however, I don’t know that I have ever gotten as much attention as I did in Estelí. The men were shameless. The catcalling, the kissy-smoochy sounds, and the honking. All of it. One guy even slowed his car down in the street, holding up traffic, until he was just ahead of me as I was walking down the sidewalk; he made sure to make eye contact as he made a very exaggerated kissing motion toward my direction, earning a much-practiced scowl from me before I turned the corner. Of course, the escalated attention probably was due in part from my “solo traveling,” but I still made a note to avoid all so-called cowboy towns in the future.

In addition to being completely annoyed by the brazen, relentless attention from men in Estelí, I also didn’t find anyone I really connected to there. It made me really miss some of my previous awesome travel buddies like Marcus and Tibo. Estelí seems like one of those “heart of Nicaragua” towns in which you have to spend a lot of time before the people start trusting you. But I didn’t exactly have another two years to spend there and this trip wasn’t focused on integration, plus the last night in the dorm room at the hostel brought in a couple more antisocial people and a girl who smelled as if she hadn’t showered for a week, so I couldn’t wait to get the heck out of there! Off to León.

Not long after arriving in León, I was already feeling better. After dodging pressure to stay at “the biggest party hostel in León” by a guy who waits at the bus terminal scooping up travelers before they catch their breath and convincing them to head to his hostel, I found my way to a place called Lazybones Hostel, which was much mellower than my first option and even had a nice swimming pool and plenty of hammocks. I immediately caught the vibe and within minutes, I made new friends who were just as laidback and friendly as the hostel. Hanging out with the four German guys and the two Dutch girls made me yet again think, “Geez. Europeans are so funny and really smart!” We all had a great time and swapped some fun stories and travel recommendations.

In the next couple days, I spent a lot of time with the Dutch girls, Marieke and Marjolein (sound like “Marika” and “Mario-lane”). Marieke is a teacher and was spending her summer holiday traveling in Nicaragua. Marjolein had recently ended a contract with her job in Mexico, where she had been living for four years; she is currently en route via land to Argentina, where she plans to look for work and live for a while. Marieke and Marjolein had actually attended school together in the Netherlands years ago and found out that, by chance, that they were in Nicaragua at the same time so they made sure to get together in León, where I found them. And I am sure glad I did!

We went to dinner at a fabulous restaurant together in León one night and it turned out that the owner of the restaurant was from the Netherlands, too, so Marieke and Marjolein chatted away with her in Dutch for half the night. After we took this photo (Marieke, me, the restaurant owner, and Marjolein), I was like, "Hey! We match the cow picture on the wall!" Each of us had a solid-color shirt on that matched a color in the painting. Random, but we all laughed about it--especially when I told the restaurant owner that she matched the cow's nose! Maybe someday I'll learn not to put my foot in my mouth...

We went to dinner at a fabulous restaurant together in León one night and it turned out that the owner of the restaurant was from the Netherlands, too, so Marieke and Marjolein chatted away with her in Dutch for half the night. After we took this photo (Marieke, me, the restaurant owner, and Marjolein), I was like, “Hey! We match the cow picture on the wall!” Each of us had a solid-color shirt on that matched a color in the painting. Random, but we all laughed about it–especially when I told the restaurant owner that she matched the cow’s nose! Maybe someday I’ll learn not to put my foot in my mouth…

León itself is a nice place—a university town, although it has the reputation for being the hottest town in all of Nicaragua. After breakfast with my friends the next day (Sunday), I wandered through the streets into the Rubén Darío museum (he was one of the most influential poets in all of Central America and still a very important figure in Nicaraguan history), through the Ortíz art gallery to admire old paintings and sculptures, and over to a couple prominent churches and the giant cathedral in the area. There weren’t too many people wandering around while I was in the middle of the day (which can probably be attributed to the thick heat) so it gave the place a very laidback feeling.

It is a relatively easy town to get around in although the majority of given directions come in forms such as “from the central park, a block and a half up” or “from the La Merced church, go two and a half blocks down and one block over.” Of course, the only way to know which direction is up, down, or over at any given time is to try to follow the hand signals of the direction-giver. There are all types of transportation, but it is far from overcrowded and the streets are decent (with the exception of a bazillion deep potholes along every sidewalk). Additionally, I was surprised by the number of locals all over the country who choose bicycling as their main from of transportation (in Estelí as well!).

Another trend that caught my attention all over Nicaragua was the presence of rocking chairs. The most common setting is a front porch, yard, or sidewalk after the sun has gone down and things start cooling off. (León comes alive in the evenings!) It provides a great spot for locals to get some fresh air and people-watch while chitchatting about this, that, and the other thing. But rocking chairs aren’t just found there; they are in people’s living rooms, at restaurants, and even serving as the main furniture in travel agencies and hostels! (I continued to see rocking chairs in every other town I visited as I traveled south in Nicaragua, as well.)

I planned my big León adventure for Monday morning: a hike up Volcano Cerro Negro—a young, active cone that is completely black and has three craters that are constantly hot with sulfuric activity—with the specific intention of sand-boarding down the side of it. I went with a group of six through an agency that drove us out to the park and set us up with boards, jumpsuits, knee and elbow pads, gloves, and goggles. (We carried our gear up in special bags for later use…)

Here I am standing in front of the biggest of the three crater on Cerro Negro.

Here I am standing in front of the biggest of the three crater on Cerro Negro.

The hike up the volcano only took about 45 minutes—the shortest ascent I have ever made on a volcano. Not only did we get to look down into the craters and out over the landscape, but we also spotted unexpected wildlife: a porcupine foraging for a meal only a couple meters away from us!!

This is the porcupine we spotted while ascending Cerro Negro, its quills waving in the cool wind.

This is the porcupine we spotted while ascending Cerro Negro, its quills waving in the cool wind.

After walking around the top for a few minutes, it was time for the real fun. We geared up and got a quick lesson from our guide on how to “steer” and slow down or speed up during the descent. The majority of us had chosen to go down sitting on our board as opposed to standing so it was more like black gravel tobogganing than sand-boarding. (The one lady who attempted to go standing took about 10 minutes to get down because she kept falling every few feet, said it was a lot of work, and reported that volcanic gravel doesn’t really have anything in common with snow; we were all impressed that she took the task on in the first place.)

Our group, all dressed up in our jumpsuits and gear with boards in hand, preparing for our rapid descent down the volcano.

Our group, all dressed up in our jumpsuits and gear with boards in hand, preparing for our rapid descent down the volcano.

When it was my turn, I sat down, grabbed the rope handle/reins, leaned back, and gave myself a little push. Then I was off! Speed picked up really fast because the smooth push-off quickly becomes a steep 45-degree angle descent, and all I could focus on was trying to keep my board pointed downward. But that was hard to do while I had black, charcoal-like gravel shooting up the legs of my jumpsuit, firing at my cheeks and exposed mouth, falling down my clothes from the opening at the neck, and nailing my goggles. Despite being under gravel-attack, I had to stay steady and focused because as soon as you lose focus, you fall and take a rough tumble. I managed to stay on and make it to the bottom in about 40 seconds. It was exhilarating!

This is the final leg of my high-speed  volcano-boarding descent down Cerro Negro.

This is the final leg of my high-speed volcano-boarding descent down Cerro Negro.

As soon as I got back to Lazybones, I checked in with Marjolein and we were both ready to get on the move (and away from the debilitating heat) and head for the coast to a place called Surfing Turtle Lodge, on a little island called Isla de Los Brasiles, just off the Pacific beach town of Poneloya, 20 minutes west of León. (Marieke had left us early that morning for her flight back to the Netherlands; this is the point when Marjolein and I became official travel buddies.) We were a little skeptical of this place because it seemed to good to be true, but we decided to give it a shot and stay at least one night. Getting out there was an adventure in itself that involved a hot, sweaty bus, then a 10-minute walk to a random restaurant where we were supposed to take a tiny motorboat out to the island, and then walk another 15 minutes through a marshy forest until we arrived at the lodge right on the beach.

Marjolein and I—hot, sweaty, and gross, but with high hopes—during the motorboat leg of our trek out to the Surfing Turtle Lodge on the Pacific Coast of Nicaragua.

Marjolein and I—hot, sweaty, and gross, but with high hopes—during the motorboat leg of our trek out to the Surfing Turtle Lodge on the Pacific Coast of Nicaragua.

Upon arrival, we looked at each other and decided that we were going to stay longer than planned—at least a few nights. (That was a Monday.) So although the Surfing Turtle Lodge had neither good surfing (since the currents were way too strong and would break a lot of boards) nor turtles due to the fact that it wasn’t turtle season, it was still a neat spot to hang out because it was practically the only place on the island. We stayed in the spacious dorms that had a nice breeze and an ocean view and enjoyed the isolation for a couple days. The place was rustic and the food options were limited, but you can’t really demand much for a place out in the middle of nowhere. The peace that the ocean provided was the payoff.

Marjolein and I playing on the beach at sunset on Isla de Los Brasiles.

Marjolein and I playing on the beach at sunset on Isla de Los Brasiles.

I don’t really have much to say about this part of the trip because I didn’t do much but read, write, and relax. I took a couple walks on the beach on which I could go at least 30 minutes in either direction and then return without seeing anyone else out there. We also played in the waves but we didn’t go too far out of respect for the current. There were other travelers there so we met lots of people and were in good company, but the best part about it was that there were enough people there to get beach volleyball matches going every afternoon for three days straight, plus a little bit of ping pong in the evenings!

Standing on the second story of the lodge, where our dorms were, this was the view: palm trees, sand, volleyball court, thatched relaxation areas, and ocean. Pure bliss for me!

Standing on the second story of the lodge, where our dorms were, this was the view: palm trees, sand, volleyball court, thatched relaxation areas, and ocean. Pure bliss for me!

I kept to myself a lot so I could spend time with nature and my thoughts. I also found that I have very different priorities from the younger travelers looking for partying or romance so the conversation with them proved difficult; Marjolein (at 35) and I often sought each other out for conversation relief from the early-20-somethings. We were still very social when the time called for it; for example, there was no way either of us was going to miss the full moon party with the beach bonfire and group mystery games on Thursday night! It was also great to hear the individual stories of some of the mellower guests which included Terry, an easygoing South African who works on yachts and has a favorite hobby of shark-diving, and the Dutch couple who has been trying for years to start a family, and after recent run-in with bad luck (for the 4th time), decided to use the money they had been saving to buy a car for “future family use” to take a big trip to Central America instead.

The lounge and bar area at Surfing Turtle was fully equipped with couches, hammocks, and bar swings. This was our group right before we started the beach bonfire. Most of the guys in this photo were out playing beach volleyball right next to me during the week. We all had a great time that night!

The lounge and bar area at Surfing Turtle was fully equipped with couches, hammocks, and bar swings. This was our group right before we started the beach bonfire. Most of the guys in this photo were out playing beach volleyball right next to me during the week. We all had a great time that night!

One of the highlights of being of the week (besides volleyball!) was witnessing a torrential storm that battered the island and gave us a big show. The lightning was practically right on top of us, flashing and cracking so immediately after each bolt appeared that it was scaring the begeezus out of us and had the adrenaline coursing through our veins as we all looked on in awe. We even saw a bolt or two hit the ocean, which was really cool!

After the storm...

After the storm…

We finally decided to leave the lodge on Friday after four nights there, and we caught a ride to Managua, the capital of Nicaragua, with some of the other guests who had a car. Instead of staying in Managua, I persuaded Marjolein to jump on a bus to Granada so we could spend the night there. I try to spend as little time as possible in capital cities because they tend to have more crime and therefore seem less safe. It turned out that we made a great choice because Granada on a Friday night was absolutely fabulous! We showered and each put on a dress and headed out for a girls’ date night. The main street was alive with live music, street vendors, and restaurants with outdoor seating. We picked The Garden Café where we had a delicious healthy dinner; later, we went to a different venue for the live music. Having so many options in a vibrant city was a big change from the isolated lodge on the island we had just come from.

The Calzada, Granda's main street, has a vibrant atmosphere, especially in the evenings.

The Calzada, Granda’s main street, has a vibrant atmosphere, especially in the evenings.

I immediately loved Granada. It is a Spanish colonial-style town with a laidback, coffee shop feel. There is a healthy mix of foreigners and locals, which is nice to see when some towns tend to be overrun by tourists. The male attention that we received was a prevalent part of the culture there, but for some reason, to me it didn’t seem as threatening as it did in the northern parts of the country since the men’s actions were less vicious, more playful, and maintained at a distance.

Another cultural observation I made in Nicaragua was regarding driving, honking, and transportation. In the United States, I had become accustomed to people only honking for road rage purposes when they get angry or frustrated at another driver; in India, I think all the people who are incessantly laying on their horns think that, by doing so, it might magically clear the streets or make people drive faster in the overwhelmingly congested streets. My personal experience with being honked at in Latin America can affirm that it is used as a really lame way to get a female’s attention—a sort of catcall. Of course these are generalizations, but the generalization I have for Nicaragua is that people are very cautious as they drive and use their horns mainly to notify other possible drivers in the area that they are approaching an intersection or attempting to join the flow of traffic. I found honking to rarely have disrespectful or angry undertones in Nicaragua.

Another note on transportation: cars and trucks, motorcycles, bicycles, and horse-drawn carts share the road equally. It was neat to see so many locals on their bicycles cruising down the streets. It became as common as the rocking chairs! And Nicaragua is the only Latin American country I have been to where using horse-drawn carts for practical purposes and transportation in the cities as well as the rural areas is completely normal.

A man on his horse-drawn cart, sharing the road with bicyclists and motorized vehicles on the streets of Granada.

A man on his horse-drawn cart, sharing the road with bicyclists and motorized vehicles on the streets of Granada.

A few more cultural notes on Nicaragua are the following: 1) Baseball is the national sport. They are so into it! It was refreshing to be in a baseball country since I have been surrounded by nothing but soccer, soccer, and more soccer for the last couple of years. I’m not really much of a soccer fan, but I love me some baseball so finally I was in the right spot! And to see how women, men, kids, and adults alike shared their love and enthusiasm for the sport was heartwarming. 2) The Spanish language in Nicaragua is very casual (also using the informal “tú” form when speaking in second person). The people seem just as laidback as the way they speak, although the thicker, harder to understand Spanish (literally, the one that comes from Spain) accent seems to have infiltrated the Nicaraguan way of speaking more so than in any of the other Central American countries I visited. 3) Nicaraguans refer to themselves as “Nicas” for short.

To be continued…

Finally Home

I have actually been home for a couple weeks at this point, but I decided that it is finally time to come out of hiding. Since I have been home, I have kept a low profile in order to have some time and space to readjust. The transition has been relatively smooth in regards to my car, phone, accounts, insurances, finances, etc. since I arranged for everything to be maintained while I was away. It is interesting stepping back into the developed world because it seems to happen so naturally. However, that doesn’t change the fact that I frequently feel disconnected or out of place. I’m like a fish out of water but I am getting used to it and glad to be home.

In one sense, it almost feels like Guatemala was just a distant dream. On the other hand, I can feel it with me all the time as I constantly flashback to my life and memories there. I am not ready to just let it slip away from me, but it is challenging to find a way to incorporate such a meaningful experience into a society where everyone is too busy to deal with anything except for what is right in front of their faces. A place where stress, consumerism, and addiction to immediate results and gratification are the common currencies coursing through the veins of the American people in this time- and money-dictated world.

I am happy to be back in the United States of America. I left Guatemala on my own terms, for the most part, and I came home when I was ready. I had a grand adventure! And to be surrounded by loved ones again—to feel safe and protected—is something that I appreciate more than I ever expected to. However, it is definitely a big change from the life I have been living on my own for the last two and a half years. The “I have to take care of myself or no one else will” attitude and survival instincts that go along with it that I developed while living abroad are still very much with me, as well as the patience and calmness that were necessary for managing the unpredictable everyday occurrences in Guatemala. I think those are all good attributes to have, but it will probably take some time for people who knew me before to get used to the enhanced, perhaps different, person I am now. And vice versa. Lots of changes have occurred over two and a half years.

Since I came back earlier in October, I feel like I have hardly been alone, but coming home to family and doing fun activities together and participating in American cultural traditions has been great. Here I am with my brother, Jeffrey, and my mom, Janine, at a pumpkin patch/corn maze in Dixon a few weeks ago.

Since I came back earlier in October, I feel like I have hardly been alone, but coming home to family and doing fun activities together and participating in American cultural traditions has been great. Here I am with my brother, Jeffrey, and my mom, Janine, at a pumpkin patch/corn maze in Dixon a few weeks ago.

The hardest thing I have been dealing with since being home is over-stimulation in every aspect. From spending so much time alone in peace and quiet whenever I felt like it to all of a sudden being surrounded by people who are excited to see me and tell me everything that is going on in their lives and then walking into a grocery store and being faced with like 40 different choices of yogurt, it has been overwhelming. It took me two weeks to even step foot into a grocery store; I just wished I could walk across the street to buy my eggs and milk. And one time I went to a shopping center to find a place to write and was faced with so many choices that I just didn’t pick any place and decided to leave. There is so much congestion of traffic and people and televisions and noise, but very little interaction. In Guatemala, we HAD to talk to people and touch people and live in a real, physically interactive environment. So I find that I am craving that on one hand and being oddly anti-social on the other hand.

I went to the cheeses section at Safeway where there were 199 different options (I counted) varying by type, size, brand, fat content, and preparation style; in Guatemala, I used to have to go an hour and a half out of my town to buy a small pack of shredded mild cheddar cheese (my other option was mozzarella), and then I rationed it because I knew I couldn't get more for a couple weeks.

I went to the cheeses section at Safeway where there were 199 different options (I counted) varying by type, size, brand, fat content, and preparation style; in Guatemala, I used to have to go an hour and a half out of my town to buy a small pack of shredded mild cheddar cheese (my other option was mozzarella), and then I rationed it because I knew I couldn’t get more for a couple weeks.

As I wandered through that same Safeway, I stumbled upon ANOTHER cheese section by the deli (the specialty cheeses). I didn't bother counting that time, but with the specialty cheese section, the first cheese section where I counted, AND the cheese "island" near the bakery/muffin selection, there could easily be between 300-400 options of choices just at one Safeway. Can you see how that could be overwhelming?

As I wandered through that same Safeway, I stumbled upon ANOTHER cheese section by the deli (the specialty cheeses). I didn’t bother counting that time, but with the specialty cheese section, the first cheese section where I counted, AND the cheese “island” near the bakery/muffin selection, there could easily be between 300-400 options of cheese just at one Safeway. Can you see how that could be overwhelming?

It has been extremely heartwarming to know that people want to see me, and I have felt so welcomed by most of those with whom I have been able to spend time already. Little by little, I am getting out and about and I really appreciate the patience and understanding that everyone has demonstrated while waiting for me to come around. I am very excited to get to everyone and hear what is going on in YOUR lives, and I have noted everyone who has individually contacted me expressing interest in meeting up. As I settle in and regain some structure in my life, I will be sure to set aside some quality time for correspondence or, when possible, in-person visits. Of course, this will not all happen overnight, but know that my heart is with all of you and I’m sending well-wishes your way for now. I haven’t even seen all of my family yet, but I am moving at a pace that is comfortable for me and eventually it will happen.

My brother, Zack, me, my little sister Lyndsie, and my older sister, Christie, at our cousin's wedding just a few weeks ago.

My brother, Zack, me, my little sister, Lyndsie, and my older sister, Christie, at our cousin’s wedding just a few weeks ago.

Although I wasn’t originally intending to, I have decided to move back to Roseville (near Sacramento) with my mom for a while. Compared to the Bay Area, Roseville is a lot more laid back and less crowded, providing a calm, peaceful environment that will make for an easier transition, I am thinking. With a couple family members and close friends up there, I have a really nice support system, but at the same time, since I am not going back to the area where I was living and working immediately before joining the Peace Corps, I have the opportunity to start fresh again. I got hired (sooner than I expected) at a very nice restaurant called Suede Blue in Roseville and will start tomorrow, working mostly in the evenings. It will be nice to get back on my feet again and start earning some money so I have time to adjust and finish some personal projects without the burden of being completely broke and trying to make payments on student loans, insurances, other bills, etc.

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Part of my support system in the Sacramento area includes this bunch here with me at Apple Hill just over a week ago: My mom, my brother, Jeff, his awesome girlfriend, Tanya, and our family Golden Retriever, Savanna (my new running buddy).

Unfortunately, I did not finish my writing project before I came home. This was not entirely unexpected. My travels ended specifically because my cousin Robert set his wedding date for earlier in October, and I wanted to be there in person to show my support for him and his wife, Anita, on their special day. I tried very hard to write as much as possible in Central America before coming home because I feared that all of the distractions in the American society would prevent me from finishing, but I am not done yet. (Don’t worry: I will give the story a proper ending!) I have approximately eight chapters to go. They are all formed in my head and if I don’t get them out now, I might never finish the story. And then I will always be thinking about them and stressing over it. Not cool.

My cousin, Robert, and his bride, Anita, on their wedding day.

My cousin, Robert, and his bride, Anita, on their wedding day.

As I expected, finding time to myself to write has proven to be a challenging endeavor, but now that I will have some structure in my schedule and be living in one place, I am determined to incorporate writing time into my life here in the USA—at least until I finish this writing project. I am not putting major pressure on myself, but I’m expecting to wrap it up around January. So even though I am home now, there is still more to the story. One benefit is that now I can incorporate some of the cultural aspects that may surface during this readjustment period which will add an enhanced perspective.

Coffee shops are usually the best places for me to write. There is no shortage of Starbucks in the USA: my brother, Zachary, told me that there are 11 Starbucks in a 3-mile radius around my dad's house, including this one--inside Safeway--that is currently being remodeled. I think Guatemala has ONE, (maybe two) Starbucks store in the entire country, which has approximately the same land area as the state of Tennessee.

Coffee shops are usually the best places for me to write. There is no shortage of Starbucks in the USA: my brother, Zachary, told me that there are 11 Starbucks in a 3-mile radius around my dad’s house, including this one–inside Safeway–that is currently being remodeled. I think Guatemala has ONE (maybe two) Starbucks store in the entire country, which has approximately the same land area as the state of Tennessee.

I’m in no rush, but some of the next steps—because that seems to be everyone’s favorite question for me right now—include studying for and taking the GRE (which is similar to the SAT, but for graduate school), researching grad schools and programs, fixing up my résumé, taking on another job perhaps in the Spring, fiddling with some other small personal endeavors and creative projects, and spending a lot of time with my family and best friends.

I just got back from a week-long trip to Portland, OR, to visit two of my close Peace Corps friends as well as one of my best friends, Krista (the one who visited me in Guatemala), and Krista's fiancé, Chase. Krista, Chase, and I enjoyed an afternoon wine tasting in a part of Oregon wine country last Saturday.

I just got back from a week-long trip to Portland, OR, to visit two of my close Peace Corps friends, Kelly and Pedro, as well as one of my best friends, Krista (the one who visited me in Guatemala), and Krista’s fiancé, Chase. Krista, Chase, and I enjoyed an afternoon wine tasting in a part of Oregon wine country last Saturday.

So for those of you who are still reading, I hope you are enjoying each chapter, and I promise you that some of my best chapters will be the final ones. Thank you for keeping me motivated to finish!

Love,

Alexandra

Visitors Galore, Round 4: Christina & Aundrea

My visitors just kept pouring in. Just over a month after Jeffrey had come to visit me, my next set of visitors, Christina and Aundrea, came to Guatemala for a week. Their trip was the shortest of all my visitors, but we stayed active and really did a lot with the small amount of time they were in Guatemala.

Christina and I know each other from college as we shared a double room together in the dorms during our freshman year at St. Mary’s College. After our first year, she transferred out, but we have stayed in contact ever since and see each other about once a year. Aundrea is Christina’s partner and they are currently living in San Diego, both working a ton as well as trying to start up a community organic farm on Aundrea’s mom’s property. They are busy, busy, busy so the main purpose of their trip to Guatemala was to have a vacation and relax. And I got to be their tour guide. A couple things Christina had told me they would be interested in included hiking a volcano, visiting farms such as coffee and chocolate, and learning about the Guatemalan diet and attending a cooking class. I did my best to work those things in as efficiently as possible.

Christina and Aundrea took a red-eye flight from Los Angeles and arrived in Guatemala early on a Friday morning. Instead of meeting them at the airport, they hopped on a public shuttle to Antigua; between the two of them, they spoke enough Spanish to figure it out without a problem. When we finally found each other that morning, we went straight to breakfast in Antigua, and then we spent the rest of the morning strolling around Antigua. It was a beautiful day, which made for a lovely introduction to the country. And neither Christina nor Aundrea had done much traveling before so they were stoked to be in another country!

Christina and Aundrea in Central Park in Antigua.

Christina and Aundrea in Central Park in Antigua.

At one in the afternoon, we headed to the Choco Museo for our chocolate workshop—the same one I had done with Jeffrey. Since there really wasn’t an easy way for me to get them to a chocolate plantation, I figured the history and discussion regarding how chocolate comes to be would be enough. Plus, we all got to make our own little chocolates at the end! (Since I had already done this, I knew what combination I liked and made all of my chocolates dark with macadamia nuts and sea salt. Yum!) Being that the girls hadn’t slept much in the last day or two, the two-hour workshop was a little draining, but the interactive parts got their attention again. They both highly enjoyed the activity and felt like they had learned so many interesting things about cacao and chocolate.

Christina, me, and Aundrea making our personal chocolates during our workshop at Choco Museo in Antigua.

Christina, me, and Aundrea making our personal chocolates during our workshop at Choco Museo in Antigua.

Shortly after our workshop ended, we had to catch the pick-up that was going to take us up to Earth Lodge. Since Mari, Russell, and Jeffrey had all loved this place, I thought for sure it was a safe bet with Christina and Aundrea. Plus, the lodge is set on an avocado farm, which was appropriate since Christina and Aundrea had been doing a lot of farming. For their trip, I was able to reserve the Deluxe Tree Cabin for us to stay in which is actually built around a tree. As soon as we settled in, they completely unwound and relaxed. They loved the place and said they could probably spend the whole week there because it was so peaceful! (I realized later that maybe I should have let them stay there all week…) And as it seemed that they never really slow down at home, for them to be able to just enjoy doing nothing was a nice change. Everyone left happy the next day, and Christina managed to acquire a recipe for avocado key lime pie, as well, while we were there.

Christina and Aundrea enjoying the view of the forest and valley from the Deluxe Tree Cabin at Earth Lodge.

Christina and Aundrea enjoying the view of the forest and valley from the Deluxe Tree Cabin at Earth Lodge.

On Sunday mid-day, we made it back down to Antigua on time to drop our stuff off at our hostel, run out for some food, and then embark on the big Saturday activity, which was a hike up the active Volcano Pacaya. The hike up only takes about an hour and a half, but since most of the way is uphill, it seems a lot longer. Once again, seeing one of my visitors in utter misery during a volcano hike made me second guess planning volcano hikes in the future. The good thing about the hikes is that you can go at your own pace, more or less. Although it was a strenuous activity, especially for Aundrea who was having a problem with her knee, we had a nice guide who explained a lot about the plants in the area during the necessary breaks that were taken.

Christina, Aundrea, and I with Volcano Pacaya in the background (constantly spewing a little lava and some ash, but the last major eruption was in May 2010).

Christina, Aundrea, and I with Volcano Pacaya in the background (occasionally spewing a little lava and some ash, but the last major eruption was in May 2010).

As always, arriving at the destination is both a relief and a reward. Since Pacaya is very active and the volcanic gravel and debris are so soft and unstable near the top that you would sink into it every step you took, tourists are not allowed to ascend the cone—it could be very dangerous. However, being right up close to an active volcano is enough, especially for people who have never been to or on a volcano. Another special thing about Volcano Pacaya is that it emits vapors from heat vents at the base of the cone that are hot enough to not only roast marshmallows but to set them on fire if you let them sit there too long! Most of the tour guides pass out marshmallows to their hikers and I had packed some “Chiki’s,” which are Guatemalan vanilla cookies with a chocolate layer, so we could make the Pacaya version of S’mores. Delish!

Aundrea and I roasting marshmallows in the hot vapor vents on Volcano Pacaya.

Aundrea and I roasting marshmallows in the hot vapor vents on Volcano Pacaya.

Christina with her marshmallows on a stick, getting ready to toast them on Volcano Pacaya.

Christina with her marshmallows on a stick, getting ready to toast them on Volcano Pacaya.

Christina and Aundrea were both very satisfied with the hike and feeling accomplished and exhausted by the time we got back to Antigua around 8:30 that night. (We had walked the last 20 minutes of the descent in the dark!) I don’t even remember if we went out for any formal dinner at all because we were all just so wiped out. We slept really well that night and had a nice Sunday morning in Antigua before heading up to the PC office Sunday afternoon to catch the shuttle for part of the way back to my site.

Christina and Aundrea stretching right before going for a chicken bus ride the day after hiking Volcano Pacaya.

Christina and Aundrea stretching right before going for a chicken bus ride the day after hiking Volcano Pacaya.

The ride out to San Andrés was windy, bumpy, and long, as usual. We did some grocery shopping for the week before we headed down the infamous unpaved road for an hour and a half to my town. Since it was during the week and I couldn’t take vacation because I already had plenty of activities on the schedule, Christina and Aundrea were with me at my house from Sunday in the afternoon until we left again Thursday morning. Since I had run them wild for their first 48 hours in Guatemala, I think they were ready for a break and being at my house gave them exactly that. My place was a great spot to relax and breathe.

Exhausted from many activities and finally giving her body a chance to slow down, Aundrea was found like this in my hammock more than once during the week.

Exhausted from many activities and finally giving her body a chance to slow down, Aundrea was found like this in my hammock more than once during the week.

During the week, we did a lot of cooking and recipe sharing, story-telling and catching up. I learned so much about Christina and Aundrea that I didn’t know before! And it was funny because since Christina and I lived together for a year in college, we could still relate to each other’s habits and “methods of madness,” per se. Once you live with a person, I don’t think you can ever go back to NOT knowing them: Christina and I are sort of like sisters and have the same relationship dynamic that we had in college. It was really fun re-living the roommate situation again, but in Guatemala. And, gosh, we all talked SO MUCH that week!

Christina and Aundrea spent most of the time at my house and gave all the cats a ton of attention. Mama kitty had just popped out another litter and they were just under two weeks old while the girls were there so that was a good source of entertainment. Christina also had the opportunity to do some leisure reading and Aundrea caught up on some movies—two activities that they don’t have he opportunity to do very often at home. I was happy to see them enjoying my home so much.

Christina loving on my kitty, Missy, who Aundrea dubbed "Joan Crawford" for the couple of days they were at my house.

Christina loving on my kitty, Missy, who Aundrea dubbed “Joan Crawford” for the couple of days they were at my house.

I did take them out once to visit my neighbors, the sisters Irma and Olga who lived around the corner and always wanted to know where I was going or coming from, who was coming to visit me, what my work activities entailed, what my weekend plans were, what my views were on dating and marriage, and how to make banana bread. These are very talkative, friendly women who can get up in your face with your curiosity. I came to adore these women—they were so good to me and warm, always insisting that I keep them in the loop of my life and also comforting me when I was feeling down or lonely.

Christina and Aundrea had very opposite experiences with them during the time we were there. Irma, Olga, and their mom, Josefina, were very hospitable serving us food and beverages and trying to make my guests comfortable. And then the non-stop questions from all three of them to the girls poured out, overlapping each other. Aundrea was having a blast because she finally had the chance to really practice her Spanish. She is of Mexican descent and grew up hearing Spanish all the time so she understood the conversation and kept up with it.

On the other hand, Christina, like me, knew Spanish grammar a lot better than she could comprehend what people were actually saying. She is also a processor, needing time to think before answering, but she just kept getting bombarded with questions and comments before she had the chance to process and respond so it ended up being a very frustrating and overwhelming visit for her. It reminded me of how I felt during pre-service training in Peace Corps when I felt so isolated when I couldn’t understand what people were trying to say to me and therefore couldn’t keep up with the conversation. Christina truly got a taste of the PC experience in this sense of isolation. Although a rough experience, we talked about it and planned to maneuver around such intense situations for the rest of the week, which meant that the anticipated interactions with my local community were slightly cut back, unfortunately including the nutrition lesson and cooking class that I facilitated out in Pajquiej that week.

The incident that occurred actually rose a good point, something that I had overlooked and failed to plan for: culture shock. My previous visitors had not had such strong reactions. Krista had been very curious about everything, Mari and Russell both had plenty of travel experience, and my brother just doesn’t react very emotionally to anything. Looking back, I realize from comments my visitors made or from how they acted in certain situations that they each were experiencing a bit of culture shock and handling it in their own ways, observing, asking a lot of questions, looking at me wide-eyed, etc.

Christina and Aundrea had a more intense experience in my site and vocalized how it affected them, which led to us finding a ways to help them feel more comfortable. Aundrea was stressed out just walking through my town because it triggered negative associations from a handful of stories and visits to the rural Mexican town her mom was from. It was definitely something that threw me off a little bit because I hadn’t been faced with managing extreme culture shock for my guests before, but it made me realize how different everyone is and how everyone copes with new situations in their own way. It was another opportunity to be flexible and to adapt to the unplanned occurrences that you can always count on in Guatemala, the Land of the Eternal Unpredictability.

We left my site on Thursday morning and headed to Antigua for their last adventure before going home early Friday morning. We set up a coffee tour for the afternoon and actually hiked out to a coffee plantation to learn about the differences in the two coffee plants this particular farm harvested, pick the coffee berries off the plants, and then distinguish between the usable berries and the “bad” ones (that get recycled and used by companies such as Nescafé to make instant coffee). We were shown the drying and roasting processes and even got to taste the fresh coffee that came from the beans that we ourselves helped to roast. It was a very informative, interactive tour—a great way to end Christina and Aundrea’s trip.

Christina, Aundrea, and I picking coffee directly off the plants during our Coffee Tour the day before they flew back to California.

Christina, Aundrea, and I picking coffee directly off the plants during our Coffee Tour the day before they flew back to California.

After the tour, we went out to Frida’s Mexican restaurant for excellent Mexican food and 2-for-1 margarita night. Christina and Aundrea were ready to get back and put all their fresh ideas for their farm, traveling, and possibly starting their own business into action. That is always my favorite part of having visitors: hearing all their favorite things and new ideas at the end of their trips. They left super early Friday morning, souvenirs and gifts in hand and stories at the tips of their tongues, for their flight back to L.A., where they had a fast-paced, fully booked weekend ahead of them. It meant so much to me to have them come out for a visit, even though it might not have been what they expected. Nevertheless, it was a solid bonding experience and an effective travel bug planter. Last I heard, they are already planning their next trip, this time to Costa Rica, this upcoming winter!

Speaking of Costa Rica, I am on my last couple days here before I make my next move. Since recovering from dengue, I have been on the move and very active, trying to make the most of my time in this beautiful, jungle- and wildlife-clad country. It is wonderful!

Love,

Alexandra

Post PC Travels: El Salvador

After leaving Kathy in Guatemala, I really felt like I was on my own as I headed for the El Salvadoran border. But that didn’t last long. A little background on El Salvador: it is the smallest country in Central America and often overlooked by travelers. Plus, since El Salvador has the best economy in Central America, there has been little need to focus on catering to tourism and backpackers. Therefore, travelers in El Salvador often receive shocked reactions from locals. And solo female travelers throw them off even more.

I had hardly crossed the border when some teenage boys (who had been on the same bus with me) approached me and asked if I was traveling alone. They said their mom was coming to pick them up and that she could give me a ride if I wanted. I waited until she came, and then I figured that they knew the area better than I did so they could at least direct me to where I needed to go. However, they were all afraid of me traveling by myself to Santa Ana in the late afternoon and insisted that I stay with them at their house in Metapán, a town half an hour in from the border. So within an hour of being in the country, my first El Salvadoran family adopted me. Awesome.

Esperanza, me, Henry, and Memo in the living room of their home. They were my first adoptive family in El Salvador.

Esperanza, me, Henry, and Memo in the living room of their home. They were my first adoptive family in El Salvador.

I stayed the night with them, washed some clothes in the pila, got organized, hung out with the mom, went out to get papusas (a typical food—more on those later) with the boys, and got a great night’s rest. The next day, one of the brothers, Henry, drove me to the bus station and sent me on my way to Santa Ana, which was actually only about an hour and a half away.

In Santa Ana, I settled into the most amazing hostel I have ever stayed at. It was like a giant home complete with a pool, hammocks, fully stocked kitchen, lounge, Wi-Fi—you name it. Even each dorm bed (no bunk beds!) had its own nightlight and small fan. Anything you could think of or needed was covered and at your fingertips. The owner had thought of everything and did a really great job! It was so nice, I didn’t even want to leave the hostel, but I did wander around town and over to the famous cathedral in the central park that looked like a perfectly sculpted white castle—and the inside was just as breathtaking!

Inside the cathedral in Santa Ana.

Inside the cathedral in Santa Ana.

It was in Santa Ana that I met my next travel buddy, Tibo, from France. He was staying at the same hostel and a small group of us would hang out and have dinners together. Most of the others went their own ways, but since Tibo and I were headed in a similar direction, we decided to stick together for another day or two. So from Santa Ana, we headed out to the Pacific Coast with the famous El Tunco beach in mind as our destination. El Salvador is renowned for its Pacific beaches, specifically in the world of surfers because it has some of the best breaks. To our surprise and slight disappointment, the “surfer” beach we had in mind was hardly conducive to the non-surfer’s enjoyment. El Tunco was terribly rocky and very unpleasant to walk on. We walked it nonetheless, but I immediately decided that it wasn’t the place for me.

Playing on the rocks at El Tunco.

Playing on the rocks at El Tunco.

Despite the fact that neither of us really fit well into Surfer Town, Tibo and I really had the best time together. He’s a great talker (even though he would say otherwise) and extremely smart and polite. He has such a way about him that he seemed so nice as he listed off all the stereotypical obnoxious behaviors and superior attitudes that Americans tend to exhibit toward the rest of the world. Of course he acknowledged that the French have acquired their own set of stereotypes as well, but he had more fun bashing the Americans in his charming way. And there was little to deny…

The famous El Tunco rock.

The famous El Tunco rock.

In the evening, Tibo and I decided to take on the notorious nightlife scene of El Tunco. But we agreed to have each other’s backs the whole time and make sure we each got back to our own dorm beds that night. (It was good that we had our buddy system because certain dorm mates seemed to have gotten lost on their way to bed that night.) So off we went to find some live music and dancing and new friends. El Tunco attracts some crazy people and one unforgettable night was plenty for me. The stories Tibo and I could tell from that night could go on and on. Better left off the record, though…

I had already decided that afternoon that one night there would suffice for me and then I’d be ready to move on so I set up plans with another family for the next day. In the morning, Tibo and I went out to breakfast together. It was a little sad for both of us to be parting ways, but I couldn’t take any more of El Tunco; I had to move on. As we enjoyed our last meal together, we laughed over all the inside jokes we had created during the week. I am so grateful for the friendship we created that week. Tibo is such a wonderful person to be around and I hope to one day cross paths with him again. Maybe in Europe next time…

Tibo and I in El Tunco.

Tibo and I in El Tunco.

From El Tunco, I hopped on a bus headed for San Salvador, the capital, where I was meeting my next family. On Christmas, I had met a guy, José, and his parents, Herbert and Liliana, at Mass at the cathedral in Antigua and we got to talking. They were from El Salvador and José was currently working as an engineer at BMW in Germany (and thus living there). We’ve kept in touch so when I knew I’d be in El Salvador, I told him that I’d like to stop by and say hi to parents. Sure enough, it all worked out. Liliana came and picked my up from one of the bus stops, took me out to a nice lunch (more papusas and other typical fare), and then brought me back to their house to visit with her and her husband for a couple hours. It was the perfect timing for a lovely visit and so good to reconnect with such a nice family before bouncing to yet another local family.

Me with Liliana and Herbert in their living room.

Me with Liliana and Herbert in their living room.

Liliana gave me a ride to my next destination—the home of a complete stranger. Well, not 100% unknown. When I had posted on Facebook that I arrived in El Salvador, my friend from college, Diana, wrote to me saying that she told her aunt and uncle I was there and that her aunt, Yolanda, wanted to show me around. So we got together that Friday afternoon and, little did I know, I was going to be attached to them for 11 more days!

So I was just on this train of family-hopping through El Salvador. I was originally planning to spend only about 6 days in El Salvador before going to Nicaragua, but when I kept getting adopted by families, it made it hard to leave. I ended up staying in El Salvador for over two weeks! And one thing I can definitely say is that El Salvadorans are some of the most hospitable people I have come across. It was such a joy to be included in these families when they hardly knew me and vice versa. Also, I had the rare opportunity to experience the tiny nation almost completely from a local perspective, something many backpackers don’t get the chance to do. I am happy I hadn’t made any solid plans beforehand either because I would not have had the same experience.

Yolanda was so excited to take me around, and it turned out that the whole country was celebrating a national holiday that week so everyone was on vacation. She invited me to go with her and her husband, Alejandro, to their other home in northern El Salvador where we were joined by her cousin, Elsa, and Elsa’s husband, Anival, and stayed for three nights. They showed me Ahuachapán, Ataco, Apaneco, and Salcoatitlán, all towns along the famous Ruta de las Flores (Flower Route), a tropical stretch of highway dotted with flowers and vegetation, and they took me to a nice beach on Costa Azul on a day where I met even more of their family.

Yolanda, Alejandro, Elsa, and Anival during breakfast on the porch at Yolanda's house in Ahuachapán.

Yolanda, Alejandro, Elsa, and Anival during breakfast on the porch at Yolanda’s house in Ahuachapán.

They were so eager to show me the best parts of their country and teach me all about the Salvadoran culture and especially the cuisine. Yolanda made sure I tried everything she could think of. Some dishes included canoas, large, cream-stuffed boiled plantains, atol de elote, a sweet warm drink made from baby corn (that has so much more flavor than Guatemalan atoles), tamalitos de elote, again, corn tamales that are soft and lightly sweet and oh-so-delicious, casamiento, the Salvadoran rice ‘n beans dish that is basically just rice mixed with refried (not whole) red beans, horchata de morro, made from a special seed unique to El Salvador instead of rice, and lastly, but most importantly, papusas, corn-based pancake-like savory patties that are made from mixing the cornmeal with cheese plus another ingredient (such as beans, pork rind, squash, spinach, chicken, or loroco [an edible plant]) and then letting the patty cook on a heated griddle. Papusas are the pride of El Salvador and for good reason!

Here I am displaying the tray of papusas we ordered after a full day at the beach. I was also sipping on horchata de morro that night.

Here I am displaying the tray of papusas we ordered after a full day at the beach. I was also sipping on horchata de morro that night.

Back on the outskirts of San Salvador, I stayed in the guest room of Yolanda’s beautiful home and was fed well and entertained for the rest of the week. Yolanda, Leonel (her son-in-law), Andrés (her grandson whom she absolutely adores), and I went on a couple outings including one to El Salvador’s Volcano National Park. Because Andrés wasn’t even three yet, we didn’t attempt any crazy hiking that day. Instead, we took a 45-minute walking tour around one dormant volcano, Cerro Verde, where we had views of two other active volcanoes, Volcán Izalco (last eruption was in the 1950s) and Volcán Santa Ana.

Leonel, Andrés, Yolanda, and I during our walk on Cerro Verde; Volcano Santa Ana is in the background.

Leonel, Andrés, Yolanda, and I during our walk on Cerro Verde; Volcano Santa Ana is in the background.

Me with a great view of Volcano Izalco.

Me with a great view of Volcano Izalco.

Another pleasant surprise I had while in El Salvador was being able to get together with another college friend, Danilo, from St. Mary’s. Danilo is half-Guatemalan and half-Salvadoran and just happened to be in San Salvador for a family reunion during the same time I was there! (I probably could have jumped families and been taken up by his if I wanted to be because that is just how Salvadorans are, but I was pretty set with Yolanda’s family who had lots more plans to take me around.) Danilo and I were able to spend an entire afternoon into the evening together catching up and swapping stories. What a great time we had! It was so nice to see him. (He saved my computer once during college so we always laugh about that and have plenty more stories to go around.)

Danilo and I, finally catching up.

Danilo and I, finally catching up.

The next outing Yolanda took me on was to a beach called Costa del Sol. The thing about El Salvador’s “nice” beaches, though, is that the coastline is lined with exclusive clubs that own the property and you can only get access to the beach if you have a membership to the club. Lucky for me, Yolanda had a membership. Our outing included Yolanda’s brother, Carlos, and his girlfriend and her daughter, Leonel (who had the day off work) and Andrés, Yolanda (who is retired), and me. It was a beautiful day and we all enjoyed the resort-like accommodations that this particular club was equipped with: a large pool, hammocks, beach access, and fresh coconuts to order. We later had a fantastic seafood lunch. It was like a little slice of paradise, but El Salvador (and a lot of Salvadorans) can afford to have that.

Palm trees, beach, sunshine, pool, perfect weather, bright sarong, and a coconut. Too good to be true? Perhaps.

Palm trees, beach, sunshine, pool, perfect weather, bright sarong, and a coconut. Too good to be true? Perhaps.

The beach was absolutely perfect to me. It had plenty of golden sand and lots of waves, but the waves weren’t so big that they could drown you. The water temperature was just right and the beach went down a long way in both directions—great for strolling. Since I love to walk on the beach (an activity that I have come to realize that, oddly, only a small percentage of people are interested in), I took off in the afternoon for some walking exercise. My guard was down as I was enjoying this lovely beach and its crashing waves so I didn’t hear the dogs that attacked me until they were too close. I got scared, screamed, and started backing away, but I didn’t make it into the safety of the ocean until after one of the two dogs put a gash in my thigh. (I am pretty sure it was a territory thing; we checked with the dogs’ owners and had them monitored for rabies during the next week and everything was fine.) It was definitely a reality check on the yin and yang of life, though: even my perfect beach had its flaws.

Dog-bite-in-thigh exhibition.

Dog-bite-in-thigh exhibition.

That evening when Leonel’s wife, Karen, got off of work and we all had dinner, Leonel, Karen, and I went out to experience the famous nightlife of San Salvador. The town was hoppin’! Since they have a little one, they don’t usually go out much, but Leonel was eager to show me, the visitor, a good time. We ended up at a place called Los Rinconcitos, which was like a 3-in-1 entertainment spot. We started with section that had the live band playing which really revved us up. From there, we walked into the attached building to have a run with karaoke night. And when we got tired of that and decided it was late, we had to pass through the dance club which had high-energy music playing that pumped us up again so we stayed and danced for about half an hour longer before finally going home. The thing about nightlife in El Salvador is that it doesn’t end until the sun comes up—there is no closing time.

Leonel, Karen, and I during our night out.

Leonel, Karen, and I during our night out.

Live band at Los Rinconcitos.

Live band at Los Rinconcitos.

A few days before when we had gone to the Volcano National Park, we made the plan to come back on Saturday to hike Volcano Santa Ana when Karen could supervise Andrés. Unfortunately, she ended up having to work that day which meant Yolanda was on grandkid-duty and Leonel and I were the only two who were able to take on the hike. But we did it! It was about a 4-hour round trip trek, beginning on Cerro Negro, and out of all the volcano climbs I have done, I would say that the crater of Santa Ana was coolest one I have ever seen. It has a small turquoise-colored lake that looks like a precious jewel lodged in the crater, and this volcano (last eruption October, 2005) still shows signs of activity on a daily basis with sulfur vents spewing vapors from the lake and crevices in the walls surrounding it. The natural beauty was spectacular!

The crater of Volcano Santa Ana.

The crater of Volcano Santa Ana.

Like most volcanoes, the altitude at the summit creates a very cool atmosphere and tends to attract a lot of clouds and fog. We arrived sweaty, but had to bundle up some in order to be able to enjoy the rewarding views. We munched on the snacks we had brought and walked around for a little while before making the descent. We felt so accomplished!

Leonel and I at the summit of Volcano Santa Ana.

Leonel and I at the summit of Volcano Santa Ana.

On the way back home, we decided to stop at Lago de Coatepeque, a fine, pristine lake at the foot of Volcán Santa Ana, for a couple hours to relax and cool off. This lake, just like along the Costa del Sol, is practically monopolized by exclusive clubs and very wealthy Salvadorans with lake houses. Leonel had his membership, of course, which allowed us access to the grounds and pool. We rented a jet ski and took it all around the lake for just over an hour in the late afternoon. It was so exhilarating and neat to be able to explore the entire circumference of the lake and the little island in one of the corners at high-speed. What a fun activity! However, it did feel a little strange to be taking a jet ski for a spin in a developing nation…

A view of Lago de Coatepeque in late afternoon from the club we were at.

A view of Lago de Coatepeque in late afternoon from the club we were at.

The next day was also a very active day. It started with yet another trip to a volcano, this time El Boquerón in San Salvador. Danilo was still in town so we invited him along for the trek, only it wasn’t much of a trek. You can drive your car up most of the way, and then, once you get out, it takes only about 10 minutes to get to the viewing area for the crater. It was pretty cool, but good company always makes a trip better, and that is what I had.

Danilo, me, and Leonel at El Boquerón.

Danilo, me, and Leonel at El Boquerón.

The crater of El Boquerón (last eruption was in 1917).

The crater of El Boquerón (last eruption was in 1917).

After that, Leonel dropped me off to get a clinical pedicure. According to both Leonel and Danilo, El Salvador is famous for their clinical pedicures. Danilo told me that that is the first activity his family does upon arrival to El Salvador every two years because it is so amazing. The feet “clinicians” really get down into your feet and toenails and dig all the gross stuff out, scrape off any callouses, and smooth everything else down. No nail polish at the end, just really clean, fresh feet and toes. I got mine (for less than $10) and can honestly say that, although some of the machines they used which I had never seen in my life kind of scared me, it felt like I had a new pair of feet when they were done with me.

Because I was planning on leaving El Salvador the following day (a Monday), I took the rest of Sunday as my travel preparation day: washed my laundry, repacked my backpack, went to the grocery store to stock up on snacks, etc. Since everyone in the house knew I was planning on taking off as well, Leonel planned a really nice going-away family lunch that day for me, and he even arranged for him, Karen, and me to go get massages later that afternoon.

The Viscarra Family: Karen, Cristina, Yolanda, Carlos, Mariela, and Mariela's mom in Yolanda's home. (Missing: Alejandro, Leonel, and Andrés.)

The Viscarra Family: Karen, Cristina, Yolanda, Carlos, Mariela, and Mariela’s mom in Yolanda’s home. (Missing: Alejandro, Leonel, and Andrés.)

One of the unique aspects regarding staying with this family for so long was that I got to listen to their stories and get to know many family members on an individual basis as well as see the local perspective regarding El Salvador’s brutal history. El Salvador is a tiny country, but not very many indigenous people exist there anymore because the majority of them were killed off during the civil war. El Salvador never had the landmass or numbers to garner the type of strength that Guatemala could during its civil war. Most citizens are ladino now.

Yolanda’s husband shared a story with me from the civil war: he said the government had issued a countrywide curfew during that period and that all people had to be in their houses by 7 PM every night. Soldiers who had orders to shoot anyone they found outside after 7 patrolled the streets. Alejandro told me that one night he was hanging out with some buddies and lost track of time. On his way home, he was detained by soldiers. They had a gun to his head and were about to kill him when one of the soldiers who was from that town recognized Alejandro and stopped the army from carrying out the sentence, sending Alejandro hurriedly on his way home. Alejandro was forever grateful to that friend and the twist of fate, but he recounted his stories very solemnly, recognizing the difficulties the country faced and expressing thankfulness that times have changed.

Speaking of how things have changed in El Salvador, this country has adopted many American habits. As you could probably tell, this family is well-off. Not wealthy, but able to afford more than enough. We had a great discussion about consumerism and Yolanda admitted that she has trouble escaping the consumer society that San Salvador is becoming. She also lives a very fast-paced lifestyle with appointments, schedules, and routines. It was interesting to spend so much time with her because her lifestyle stressed me out, sometimes making me very anxious and putting me on edge. I recognized it as a little taste of reverse culture shock and I managed to find ways to communicate with her when I needed to slow down or do my own thing. It made me identify some of the readjustment issues I will likely face coming home, and I decided that all this traveling is going to significantly help make my transition home go smoothly because I don’t have to take reverse culture shock head-on all at once; instead, the Central American traveling allows me to take the developed, fast-paced world in doses and retreat from it as I need to.

It was so great to be with Yolanda’s family. They absolutely spoiled me, providing me with my own comfortable, room, feeding me whenever they could, and showing me everything they love about their country. I hardly spent any money in El Salvador and when I tried to pitch in for a meal or activity I did with the family, they reprimanded me! El Salvador is an inexpensive country to travel in and the American dollar stretches far especially when you only need nickels, dimes, and quarters to pay bus fares and buy street food, but it got to a point where I really started wanting to spend to my OWN money. (El Salvador actually uses American dollars as its national currency—as does Ecuador—because in 2001, the United States experimented with these two countries to see if they could make the dollar the uniform currency in all of Central and South America; it didn’t work out but El Sal and Ecuador maintained the money system nonetheless.)

A couple times I caught myself wondering why I was spending so much time with that family and not my own, and it made me miss MY family. I also felt that I had gotten to know the inner workings of that family very well—maybe too well—and although I was so grateful for their hospitality, I didn’t want to overstay my welcome and I knew it was time for me to move on and be on my own again. I wanted my independence back, plus Nicaragua was calling my name.

Sunset at Costa del Sol

Sunset at Costa del Sol

Before I left, the family insisted that I tend more to my dog bit so Leonel took me to the health center on Monday to have a consultation with the doctor, which meant that I couldn’t leave until Tuesday, making a grand total of 15 days spent in El Salvador. Of all the Central American countries I have visited, El Salvador comes out on top in regards to hospitality, ease of getting around (in such a small country, everywhere you want to go seems so close and takes just an hour or two to get there—a nice contrast from the 5, 10, or 16-hour bus rides I had gotten used to in other countries) and local food. (Mexico beats El Sal with the cuisine, but that is not in Central America…) I still dream about papusas and tamalitos de elote, both of which I could probably eat on a daily basis without tiring of them. All in all, I really enjoyed the time I spent in El Salvador and would gladly go back.

More writing on the way! I am finally making some exploratory progress in Costa Rica, as well…

Love,

Alexandra

Visitors Galore, Round 3: Jeffrey

Next up: Jeffrey, my little brother! Jeff was my first family member to come visit me. He was also my youngest visitor (at 19) and, by far, the most entertaining visitor I had. We planned his trip to last 8 days in early January while he was still on winter break from American River College in Sacramento. He landed in Guatemala just a day or two after I had returned from my own Christmas vacation in Belize.

Jeffrey had never really traveled before coming down to see me, and it took a lot of convincing to get him to agree to it. I told him I would plan the trip based on a small budget, and I even let him borrow my big travel backpack. As his older sister, I held a small position of influence so despite his hesitation, he finally agreed to it. During the whole trip he told me and repeated to other people we met along the way that he had made a list of reasons of why he should and why he shouldn’t come to Guatemala and his list for why he shouldn’t come was significantly longer so he wasn’t sure why he had agreed to the trip. Oh, and I also found out that he was under the impression that all I did in Guatemala was build houses, climb volcanoes, and poop in holes. That paved the way for a shocking trip for the little brother!

Jeffrey standing on Antigua’s famous “Arch Street” by the Santa Catalina Arch with Volcán de Agua behind it.

Jeffrey standing on Antigua’s famous “Arch Street” by the Santa Catalina Arch with Volcán de Agua behind it.

Jeff arrived around noon on a Thursday and I met him at the airport. He was so relieved to see me! We headed straight Antigua, put down our stuff at the hostel, and went out for lunch. I took him to Saberico, a very nice, PCV-favorite restaurant and with organic food and fresh veggies and herbs, many from its own garden. Jeffrey ordered fettuccine alfredo with meat in it and raved about it; however, he skeptically eyeballed the side salad that came with it and decided not to touch it. Amused, I said, “Fine. If you won’t eat it, I will,” and I took it to go.

In the afternoon, I took him up to the cross on the hill, of course; a little fresh air and exercise never hurts after a full day stuck in airports and on airplanes and cars. Then, in the evening, we met up with a bunch of other PCVs, had dinner, and hung out for a little bit in Antigua. A lot of other volunteers were also either entertaining visitors or getting back from other vacations during that first week of January so Jeffrey was able to meet a wide variety of PCVs, plus some of their family members. A couple of the female PCVs from my group who were staying at the same hostel hung around a lot longer that night than they ever had around me before, and I am fully aware that it had everything to do my brother’s presence. I had never found myself in that situation before, and I was under the impression that it is usually little sisters whose friends try to go after their older brothers, but since Jeff looks a lot older (the general opinion was that he was around 30), I guess I can understand it. It was pretty funny to me, but poor Jeffrey just wanted to sleep!

Jeffrey and I at the Cross on the Hill with the town of Antigua below and Volcán de Agua making the backdrop.

Jeffrey and I at the Cross on the Hill with the town of Antigua below and Volcán de Agua making the backdrop.

Friday morning entailed the usual, a leisurely breakfast and strolling around Antigua, then in the afternoon, we hopped on the PC shuttle and a couple chicken buses until we arrived at Lago de Atitlán where we jumped on a boat that took us out to Iguana Perdida in Santa Cruz la Laguna. As night was falling, we settled into some chairs on the patio overlooking the lake and started chatting. Jeff told me that he loved everything so far! He said that he thought he was going to be really nervous, worried about getting robbed and expecting to be attacked by deadly bugs the whole time he was out here, but that he was actually very relaxed and a little surprised by it. He seemed very excited all of a sudden of what the rest of the week had in store for him, which made me do a triumphant backflip inside.

The big Saturday adventure I planned for us entailed a volcano hike. (I had to make sure his experience was at least partially congruent with his hike volcanoes/build houses/poop in holes theory.) We were taken to the park entrance where we joined a few others (making a group of seven) and set up with a tour guide. During the hike, Jeffrey was in great spirits, chattering on about the two cute 19-year-old girls at dinner the night before with their sexy British and Scottish accents. We learned a lot from our guide, and the hike was really nice because we were shaded most of the time by forest. I also thought it provided more brother/sister bonding time.

About halfway through the hike, Jeff was tired which was understandable since we were climbing vertically. Then, only half an hour away from the summit, he was so mad and swearing that he would never EVER torture himself with a volcano hike again. He had thought he was in better shape! Feeling slightly responsible and realizing I had probably made the mistake of planning this hike when he had only had less than two days to acclimate to the altitude, I decided to keep quiet and just keep moving…

He was about ready to throw in the towel, but he trudged on when I told him, “We’re almost there.” (But not before retorting, “You said that 20 minutes ago!” first.) Once we got to the top, though, everything changed. Suddenly it all seemed worth it to him as he gazed in awe at the amazing view of the panoramic landscape that stretched across the entire giant Lake Atitlán and the two other volcanoes and many small towns that border the lake. He changed his mind at that point saying he would climb a volcano again—but definitely not anytime soon.

Jeffrey and I at the summit of the volcano we climbed with Lago de Atitlán below.

Jeffrey and I at the summit of the volcano we climbed with Lago de Atitlán below.

It was chilly at the top of the volcano, but we all set up our picnics and stayed up for about an hour enjoying the view and the break. I had packed 3 pieces of fruit each, plus sliced banana bread, peanuts and raisins, nearly a gallon of water, and beans-in-a-bag with some bread to spread the beans on for us to keep us going during the hike. Jeffrey looked at the beans-in-the-bag and made a grossed out face, claiming he wasn’t going to eat them because he didn’t like how it looked as I squeezed these packaged refried black beans out of a medium-sized circular opening onto the bread, but since we had already eaten a lot of the other stuff and he was hungry, so he gave in and decided that they weren’t so bad after all, and in fact, he reported that the beans were actually pretty tasty. (Beans-in-a-bag is a PCV favorite: inexpensive, easy to travel with, doesn’t spoil easily, and a great source of protein!)

After a 6-hour hiking trip including the descent, we headed back to Iguana Perdida where a bunch of my PCV friends were gathering for a get-together. As a group, we actually went on another hike over to a neighboring town where we were planning to spend the rest of the afternoon at a small restaurant with an infinity pool overlooking the lake. Unfortunately, the place was closed and I felt silly for leading everyone over there, but the hike was pretty at least!

Kelly and Pedro (back row), Chelsea, Jeff, me, Kathy, and Vénoni at Ven Acá on the lake with volcanoes Atitlán and Tolimán behind us.

Kelly and Pedro (back row), Chelsea, Jeff, me, Kathy, and Vénoni at Ven Acá on the lake with volcanoes Atitlán and Tolimán behind us.

I loved that my brother got to meet a lot of my Peace Corps friends, especially a couple of the people who I am very close to. Kathy came out to lake that weekend specifically to meet Jeff, and Kelly, Kathy’s site mate and also a good PC friend also came out. So did Chelsea and her boyfriend, Vénoni. Lastly, Pedro was still in Guatemala, making his rounds visiting friends after our trip to Belize so he didn’t want to miss the fun at the lake either! Pedro and Jeff really hit it off which I was happy to see; I think they both needed some good male bonding time. And that bonding continued throughout the night as Iguana Perdida’s infamous Saturday night “dress-up” party got under way. But I will say no more about that, for dignity’s sake…

On Sunday morning, as we were getting ready to check out, Jeffrey noticed that he was developing a rash of little pink dots all over his body. The consensus of the group was that it was an allergic reaction; Kelly knew for sure because she had had the same thing during her service already. (It was really funny that Jeff would get the allergy attack because he had been so careful with his food selection the night before at Iguana Perdida’s BBQ dinner, eating only his chicken and 2 of the 7 side salad dishes that were being offered.) I called Johanna, the PCMO who had already met Jeffrey and calmed his initial nerves by saying he could call her for anything, and she actually talked to Pedro to tell him what to give Jeffrey to calm the reaction (in addition to antihistamines).

Luckily for us, Pedro worked as a nurse at a hospital in Portland so he knew exactly how to handle the situation. As Jeffrey’s throat started itching and his hands, back, and neck continued to visibly speckle as we rode along the windy road in a chicken bus, we all became anxious. As soon as we stopped in the next big town, Pedro was off the bus and disappeared into a pharmacy. By the time we got there, he had already bought the medicine and was preparing a needle. Everything happened so quickly, which was good because that way Jeff didn’t have time to think about the needle. He grabbed his camera and asked me to take a picture. (Later, he told me he wasn’t sure if he wanted me to take a picture or hold his hand; that comment was so endearing to me as his sister.) Pedro had him stand by the counter and injected his upper arm so fast that Jeff hardly felt it. And then we all jumped on the next bus!

Pedro injecting Jeffrey with some serious anti-allergenic meds.

Pedro injecting Jeffrey with some serious anti-allergenic meds.

Jeffrey and I were on our way to my site that day and from the time he got his injection we still had almost 3 ½ hours to travel, three of those without the rest of the crew. The medicine was supposed to make him really sleepy so here I was traveling with this 6’ 3½” giant little man who couldn’t keep his eyes open on public transportation with both our backpacks. The Guatemalans on the buses probably still thought he was my bodyguard, though. Again, very entertaining. I wasn’t too worried, just glad he was going to get better. And right before the last leg of the trip, he woke up and we ate some ice cream together, which made him happy.

Upon arrival to my house, all the cats came out to meet Jeffrey. It was so odd because usually they are pretty shy or only one or two will poke around at a distance, but all four of the cats (all females) living in the house at the time surrounded him! They absolutely adored him. It sort of reminded me of how ALL women seem to be drawn to my brother, ever since he was little. As he was raised mostly with four sisters and Mom, I think he has learned a thing or two about how to treat the ladies!

Jeffrey making friends with the felines of my household. Notice how three of them all have similar tails? That is because both the grey one and the paint one are daughters of the golden one (who by the way is pregnant in the picture) from different litters.

Jeffrey making friends with the felines of my household. Notice how three of them all have similar tails? That is because both the grey one and the paint one are daughters of the golden one (who by the way is pregnant in the picture) from different litters.

Within a short time of getting to my place, Jeff passed out again for several hours. I took advantage of the time to settle back in to my home and put everything in its place since I had been gone for nearly three weeks by that point. During that time, I also schemed about making Jeffrey go outside and dig a hole to use as his poop spot while I used the porcelain toilet in my room so he could have the experience he was expecting, but I thought that with the allergy attack and everything, I’d give him a break. :)

I then prepared dinner and woke Jeffrey up to make sure he had something in his stomach. He finished up and was still hungry! I was used to cooking for only me, or me plus small people, so I didn’t know how to manage his big boy appetite! He poked around my kitchen for something more to eat and decided on cereal. But when he saw the powdered milk that I was about to prepare for him, he raised his eyebrows with a “you don’t really expect me to eat that stuff, do you?” look on his face. Ok. Let’s try again. Milk-in-a-box. “Really?” his face questioned. He asked when it expired so I read the box and said it didn’t. He didn’t trust it, but after I opened it and he sniffed it, he said it would do. It was kind of hard to feed my brother that week due to the sheer number of calories he needed. I couldn’t keep food on the table! Luckily, my chili con carne was a hit with him AND filled him up.

Jeffrey, happy to finally get some meat from my chili con carne.

Jeffrey, happy to finally get some meat from my chili con carne.

Unfortunately, Jeffrey wasn’t able to see or participate in the PC work that I did because it was holiday season and thus down time for everyone (and building houses was never part of the deal), but he still got the PCV living experience. During the few days we were in my site, I taught him a couple favorite recipes (boy loves to cook!), and he did his own laundry in the pila and then hung it up on the line. The best part by far was the bucket bath experience, though.

Apparently I didn’t explain very well how to go about it and probably should’ve stepped into the bathing area and briefly demonstrated; instead I just warmed up his water and told him which buckets served which purposes. I later found out that he literally stood INSIDE the bucket during his bathing experience! I was so surprised and couldn’t believe his size 18 feet actually FIT inside the bucket! He said he didn’t want to run out of water and that when he poured the water from the bucket onto himself, it fell right back down into the bucket so he was good to go. It made sense. LOL!!!

On Tuesday, like always, I planned a day out in Pajquiej. We had spent all of Monday at home, letting Jeffrey recuperate from his allergy attack (which we unfortunately never found the cause of; it could have been food or a bug bite or anything since it was all new and foreign to Jeff) so it was time to get out and get some fresh air. At the time we were leaving, there happened to be a micro headed out so we hitched a ride for part of the way. When the ayudante, or helper, of the micro saw Jeff, he told him to ride on the top of the van because he was too big and didn’t fit inside! That was something Jeffrey definitely doesn’t get to do on a daily basis back home…

Jeff, riding on top of the micro on our way out to Pajquiej.

Jeff, riding on top of the micro on our way out to Pajquiej.

In Pajquiej, we headed straight for Sandra’s house because she had invited us over for lunch. Jeffrey was again skeptical, but gracious of the caldo de pollo, or brothy chicken soup with vegetables and rice, that he was served. It was only after lunch that I told him this was the same family that had served me cow tongue, cow stomach, and cow kidney on three different prior occasions. The family and I all laughed about it and had joked before about feeding Jeffrey something “different and exciting.” For the rest of the afternoon, we played with the kids down by the river before walking back to town.

Jeff, playing with Yaser and Yessenia down by the river in Pajquiej.

Jeff, playing with Yaser and Yessenia down by the river in Pajquiej.

I could tell Jeff was starting to get bored so we talked about it. He just felt so far away from everything and had nothing to do. Now that he was healthy again, he seemed ready to leave and get active again; it reminded me a little bit of how I felt when I first moved to my site before creating a new life for myself there. I think experiencing the rural lifestyle and visiting a village family with very little was good for him. I like to think it provided him with a little perspective and a lot of appreciation for what he does have access to in the USA.

That evening, I pulled out a “goodie bag” filled with firecrackers and other pyro-technic knick-knacks and we headed over to Tayra’s house to set them all off after Tayra and I made dinner for everyone. Finally, Jeffrey was in his element. He had something that caught his interest! We set off flowers and whistlers and lit sparklers and smoke bombs. Then HE lit a couple bottle rockets before shoving the equivalent to half a stick of dynamite inside a thick plastic container and lighting it, effectively blowing the container to pieces. There are no laws against fireworks in Guatemala! He really had a great time that night.

Jeffrey setting off a bottle rocket.

Jeffrey setting off a bottle rocket.

We left my site the next day and headed back to Antigua. It took us over 5 hours to get there, but upon arrival, Jeffrey exclaimed, “Oh, I am SO happy to be back to Antigua! We were like out in the middle of nowhere and I was scared that if something happened, we would be too far away from anything to get help. I LOVE Antigua!” Funny because he hadn’t said anything while we were in my site; I didn’t know he had been feeling THAT isolated. So we headed to the spiffy McDonald’s ice cream-only shop [next door to the nicest McDonald’s I’ve ever seen, complete with top-notch service, a huge kid’s play place, an expansive garden, and even its very own McCafé with hot drinks and treats ready to order; I actually took all my visitors there since I regard it as a must-see tourist attraction] to get some cool treats before moving on.

Happy to get some Mickey D’s soft serve!

Happy to get some Mickey D’s soft serve!

The next stop for us was Earth Lodge so we piled into the back of the pick-up and headed up into the hills! This was a relaxing spot, of course, because it is set among an avocado farm a little ways off from a hillside village. It was so nice to settle in to the lodge after a full day of traveling! Jeffrey felt the same way so after dropping our stuff off in our cabin we scooted into some chairs on the hill and chatted as we watched the sunset. It was perfect.

Jeff and I relaxing at Earth Lodge.

Jeff and I relaxing at Earth Lodge.

Earth Lodge always serves family style, vegetarian dinners (unless you request meat) which means that you have to mingle with the other guests. Jeffrey thought a bunch of the other travelers were weirdos and wasn’t really interested in talking with any of them. It just so happened that I was sitting next to the only older gentlemen at the table (and at the lodge) and we got to talking. It turned out that he, Henry, was an RPCV who served Peace Corps, Brazil from ’66-’68! We shared stories and ideas about service, volunteerism, communities, government, and economics. Henry was so smart and Jeffrey was intrigued. And I was amazed at how connected two PC people can become just upon meeting each other. It was as if the three of us were in our own little world and no one else was around. We talked until we were the last ones in the dining room and finally had to go to bed. Great conversation!

Our sunset view from our relax spot at Earth Lodge.

Our sunset view from our relax spot at Earth Lodge.

Jeff and I went to our cabin and starting winding down. When it was time to brush teeth, Jeff didn’t want to walk through the forest by himself so I told him to just spit over the balcony. But it was dark and we were up in the woods so he tapped into the special sister-duty requests which meant I had the honor of stepping a couple feet outside the glass door onto the balcony first to show him it was safe, and then he followed and stayed out to brush his teeth. When he had to go to the bathroom, it was a similar thing. I asked him, “What are you going to do? Hold it all night? Just go pee off the balcony.” But that was a no-go because he thought something might jump out of the trees while he was taking a leak. He finally took a flashlight down to the bathrooms outside.

On Thursday when we went back down the hill into Antigua, we spent a couple hours managing the details of Jeffrey’s end-of-trip, including the usual souvenir shopping, airport transportation arrangements, and a couple other things. We had a fun time haggling our way through the markets! Then in the late afternoon, we walked over to the Choco Museo where our 2-hour chocolate workshop was about to begin with Pablo, the charismatic tour leader.

The chocolate workshop was so interesting because we learned about how cacao grows and is harvested, the history of chocolate and the different ways the Maya used the cacao beans (for example, as part of a hot drink and also as money/currency in trading), and the evolution of the chocolate drink based on where in the world it was being consumed. We also learned how chocolate got to Europe and then how milk chocolate came into existence. Lastly, Pablo explained the benefits and uses of the cacao butter (beauty products, chap sticks, white chocolate, etc.), and as he was explaining to our group how cocoa butter can help get rid of stretch marks and elaborating on a story of how Jeffrey could rub it all my belly during a post-baby romantic beach getaway to Cancún, I had to stop him: “Puh-lease don’t go any further with this story. This is my little brother, NOT my husband!” Poor Jeffrey.

On that note, I should mention that the whole week sort of went like that. People thought Jeffrey was either my husband or my boyfriend, and everyone thought he was a lot older than me. It was kind of nice in the sense that men left me alone when Jeffrey was with me. I mean, he is like double the size of the average Guatemalan so people were correct to be intimidated by him. It was like he was my bodyguard for the week—the facial hair, the black sunglasses, and the fake spike-earrings he was wearing really had an effect. It was great to have him with me, and it wasn’t until after he left and I tensed up again that I realized how I had actually been able to let my own guard down some and relax a little when he was around.

Back to chocolate. The second part of the workshop included hands-on work with chocolate, roasting and shelling cacao pods, grinding them into a paste, and trying three different types of beverages based on cacao and a mixture of various other ingredients including sugar, spices, and water or milk. Lastly, we each had a little workspace with a bowl of liquid chocolate and a spread of spices and other goodies—dried oranges, almonds, macadamia nuts, coconut, cardamom, cinnamon, chili, coffee beans, sprinkles, sea salt, Oreo cookies, powdered milk—to mix together and drop in molds, thus creating our very own unique chocolates to take home with us at the end of the day.

Jeffrey and I grinding up cacao beans at Choco Museo during our workshop.

Jeffrey and I grinding up cacao beans at Choco Museo during our workshop.

Jeffrey had a great time with this workshop and was really interested in all of it. He also loved Pablo and was talking to him afterward for a while about the housing market and buying strategies. Our friend, Henry, from Earth Lodge the night before also stopped by as we were finishing up to touch base with us again. Jeffrey’s two favorite people from those couple of days! It was cool to see him get so excited talking with both Pablo and Henry and being interested in learning from them.

Jeffrey and I with RPCV Henry at Choco Museo.

Jeffrey and I with RPCV Henry at Choco Museo.

That night, Jeff and I cleaned up and went out to Frida’s, a top-notch Mexican restaurant in Antigua, for our last dinner together. We talked about how nice it had been to spend so much time together that week. Sometimes siblings or other family members don’t spend enough time together and fall out of touch or lose track of what is going on with their loved ones so it was really nice to get a full week of brother/sister bonding time. We talked a lot about our family and laughed at all the different personalities and which traits certain siblings inherited from mom and why certain members of our family get along better with each other or why they don’t. We were both really enjoying the family member personality analysis as well as making plans for the future holidays and get-togethers and a bunch of stuff. Jeffrey and I had always had a nice relationship, but him coming out to Guatemala deepened our involvement with each other’s lives and made our relationship even stronger.

The next morning after breakfast, Jeffrey was feeling stomach-sick so I left him in the hostel to rest while I finished up his errands. I met up with Henry again who wanted to say goodbye to Jeff in person so he walked back with me to the hostel and we both saw Jeffrey off together. Henry really liked us and the feeling from us was mutual toward him as well. He said he could see what a great brother-sister team we made and he could tell that we would always be close. That was special to hear.

Jeffrey and I at the end of his Guatemala trip, right before he headed to the airport.

Jeffrey and I at the end of his Guatemala trip, right before he headed to the airport.

I was sad to see my little brother go, but so proud of him for gaining the courage to make this trip in the first place, despite all his reasons against it. I really enjoyed watching him explore and learn a little about traveling during the week. I loved how he got excited when he found someone interesting to talk to, and I was very entertained by his thought processes and ideas. It was like he was a different person at the end of his trip than he was at the beginning. His initial timidity was replaced with a new confidence and excitement, and he couldn’t wait to get back home to put his new ideas into action (and go to the gym and eat a lot again—haha!). The only bummer was that I wasn’t going home with him. But that was okay because I know that time won’t come between us.

FOLLOW-UP

Jeff flew back to California on a Friday so I waited until Saturday to call and check in on him and see how his flight went. I got some one-word answers and short sentences so I just assumed he was tired from traveling, but actually he was patiently waiting for me to finish because as soon as I stopped talking, to my surprise, he started raving about what a great time he had with me and how cool it was to meet so many people from all over the world. Then he goes, “Alex, I know you’re going to have your own plans and stuff you have to do when you get back, but I just wanted to let you know that I want to travel the world with you so if we could work that in somewhere, that’d be great. We can go to some crazy places and who cares if we die, at least we’ll die together.” He made my day. Not only that, it was clear to me now that my little brother got the travel bug!

Jeffrey transferred to Sacramento State University this fall and is studying Economics. He’s been working in restaurant business for a couple years, but recently got out of that and is looking for a new line of work so he can take his lovely girlfriend, Tanya, out on dates every now and then. :)

Jeffrey, a natural backpacker, walking toward the lake in late afternoon.

Jeffrey, a natural backpacker, walking toward the lake in late afternoon.

I am currently in Costa Rica, on the upswing of nearly a weeklong run with dengue fever (which I most likely picked up in Nicaragua), which had me down for the count and passed out for a good portion of several days, but I’m slowly coming back around now. I’m ready to start seeing Costa Rica after being her for a week already.

Love,

Alexandra

Post PC Travels: Honduras

In the middle of our travels, after visiting Tikal, I spent about a week more in Guatemala working on some stuff with PC. Kathy and Joeana passed through Antigua for a day and then went ahead of me to Honduras because I was still had a little more left to do in the office. After I finished, I left Guatemala on a Saturday morning at 6 AM, prepared for an all day trip on shuttles and buses to get me to a town called La Ceiba, on the Caribbean coast of Honduras, from where the boats to Roatán leave. After a 16-hour day in transport, I finally settled in to a hostel late and shared a room with another lady (from San Francisco) who was on my bus that day and headed to the same place.

On Sunday morning, I got on a ferry that took me out to Roatán, one of the Bay Islands in the Caribbean, and found the girls. By this point, we had collected Jenny as well for a couple days. She was a PCV in Kathy’s and my group; she just COS’d about 10 days after us, and then jumped right on with us for some traveling. So we became 4 upon my arrival.

Jenny, Kathy, Joeana, and I in Roatán.

Jenny, Kathy, Joeana, and I in Roatán.

The whole point of going out to Roatán was to take a SCUBA course and get Open Water certified. We had the choice between two islands: Utila and Roatán. Utila was the “backpacker island,” supposedly with significantly lower prices for everything; Roatán has the reputation for being the “resort” island (and therefore more expensive), however the diving was supposed to be better. So what did we do? We opted for the expensive island on our very tight budgets! It worked out really well for us though because we found a cheap hostel ($8/night) with a shared kitchen where the four of us cooked together for the first few nights in West End.

By the time I showed up, Kathy and Jenny had already completed their Open Water course and were SO excited for me to start mine as soon as possible. (Joeana had tried it out for a day and decided against it.) But it was too late to start on Sunday so we planned an afternoon trip over to the beaches of West Bay (where the fancy resorts are) where we went snorkeling and ate a picnic lunch. Kathy, Jenny, and Joe seemed to relish the opportunity to sunbathe, but since that activity doesn’t suit me well, I ran off and joined a beach volleyball game with some locals instead.

This is the view directly across the street from the Coconut Tree dive shop.

This is the view directly across the street from the Coconut Tree dive shop.

It was a little complicated having four girls together, each with different ideas, tastes, and agendas, but we managed all right. All three of them seemed to have some sort of deadline: Joeana was flying back to California from Roatán that Monday, Jenny was flying to California from Guatemala the upcoming Saturday, and Kathy was starting her new job in Xela the following Thursday. And I showed up after everybody and wasn’t going to leave the island after only 2 days. It was a little stressful, but with brainstorming and flexibility, we were able to create a functional plan together for the week.

On Monday, instead of starting my SCUBA course, I spent the whole day with the girls. Joeana left late morning to catch her flight. Then, Jenny, Kath, and I had lunch together and just did whatever we felt like for the rest of the day! That included hanging out with some of the new friends Kathy and Jenny had collected at the Coconut Tree dive shop (where we did our courses), swimming out to an abandoned sail boat with a giant rope swing attached that is there solely for islander/visitor entertainment, and then relaxing in an infinity pool in late afternoon to watch the sunset. Our great day ended with a delicious vegetarian dinner we cooked together at the hostel, then a movie. It was perfect.

Kathy, Jenny, and I watching the sunset in an infinity pool built on top of volcanic rocks.

Kathy, Jenny, and I watching the sunset in an infinity pool built on top of volcanic rocks.

On Tuesday, I began my Open Water course at 9 o’clock sharp with Coconut Tree. There ended up being only two of us in the class, me and a guy named Marcus, and Marcus had already done the PADI coursework online so I was left to work independently in the classroom, studying, watching the videos, and completing the knowledge reviews and quizzes at my own pace. Just how I like it! Marcus and I did all the confined water work together that day with our instructor, Rudy, and a guy named Ándre who was just observing our classes as part of his Dive Master training. Although I wasn’t able to do my course with Kathy like we had originally planned, I couldn’t have asked for a better learning environment: a small class with personalized attention and one great buddy!

That day was Kathy and Jenny’s last day on the island so while I was in class, they were soaking up the sun. We all headed out for “Taco Tuesday” at a restaurant called the Flying Pig and each had two very loaded tacos with the works: meat, salsa, kale (instead of lettuce!), guacamole, cheese, and real sour cream—for only $1. We spent the rest of the night socializing with all the people we had met through Coconut Tree, including Marcus and his friend from home, Vijay. Kathy and Jenny had done such a great job establishing a rapport with the shop before I arrived that I felt like I automatically became part of the dive shop family as well. They were so welcoming, so we were in good hands the whole time!

For their last night, we had switched lodging and moved to the Coconut Tree dorms, a two-minute walk from the dive shop, where we paid only $5/night for a 6-bed dorm with a bathroom inside AND air-conditioning. (Surprise, surprise! Roatán isn’t all that expensive after all…) The only issue with the dorm cabin that was constructed on stilts was that some cracked tiles on the bathroom floor were sort of drooping a little and when Jenny—the smallest person in the dorm—took a wrong step, the tiles went crashing to the ground ten feet below, leaving a 4-tile hole in the bathroom floor!

Kathy and Jenny left Roatán early Wednesday morning because Jenny had been in contact with some family friends who owned a beach house near La Ceiba and was running out of days to make it out there before her flight home. I decided to pass on the beach house so I could complete my course and I was okay being left alone so Kathy went with Jenny for company. Once they left, I felt myself completely relax. Since I was behind with my dive course, I thought the girls would get restless waiting for me to finish (even though that is probably not true) had they stayed on the island. Also, Jenny being on a time schedule affected me because we were all trying to make plans together. So when they left, leaving me on my own with all my slowness, I was so relieved. It was the best thing that could’ve happened at that point.

I absolutely loved the experience I had on Roatán!!! I actually never thought that SCUBA diving would be a part of my life or something that I would even try. I like going to the beach and I have gone snorkeling before, but I have never been extremely comfortable in the ocean. I get nervous so I just assumed that the big, dark, deep, scary ocean wouldn’t be the place for me. Boy was I wrong! I am not even sure why I decided to try it (I think it rooted from a plan that Kathy and I hatched together which made me feel good since I wouldn’t be trying it alone!), but my life is now changed. Everybody says this and it is so true: diving gives you access to a whole new world!

The Open Water course lasted three days and included technique learning and emergency situation practice in a confined water setting plus four dives over the course of the second and third days. Marcus was the best buddy for me and Rudy was the perfect instructor. Marcus’ positive outlook and optimism toward everything were contagious so we were always joking around and having fun! And Rudy was professional, efficient, and patient with me, making sure I felt comfortable with every step before moving on to the next thing. And whenever I needed more time with something, Marcus was perfectly fine entertaining himself until I was ready. I looked forward to every day with them!

My AWESOME dive buddy, Marcus, and I showing off how great our dive gear, rash guards, and my full body wetsuit were! They all started calling me Jaguar-Woman after that...

My AWESOME dive buddy, Marcus, and I showing off how great our dive gear, rash guards, and my full body wetsuit were! They all started calling me Jaguar-Woman after that…

Although diving was challenging for me, especially in regards to overcoming the psychological blocks (for example, “Wait—you want me to let my mask completely fill with water, take it off, put it back on, clear all the water out, and then open my eyes again? All under water?? Are you crazy?!” Okay, well I never asked that, but I was sure thinking it), it made sense to me. It is very scientific and involves a lot of physics concepts. For every circumstance where something might go wrong with equipment, air, or anything, there was always a pre-thought-out and functional solution. And so I believed that everything would be fine…

And it was. During our four dives, we mainly focused on practicing skills underwater, but Rudy was nice enough to let us swim around some as well. I was really nervous during my first dive and very tense, but after that, I loosened up a bit and concentrated on my Darth Vader-breathing, and everything was fine. Marcus would try all these little tricks in the water like doing flips and hovering upside down so he gave me the confidence to try new things, too!

We saw a lot of new types of fish plus turtles, stingrays, corals, sponges, anemones, sea urchins, cleaner shrimp, lobsters, lion fish—you name it! I had seen similar things before snorkeling, but the difference is that with SCUBA diving, you can get up close and personal, as long as you stick to the “look but don’t touch” rule of thumb. You really have the chance to observe the animal behavior as well as see the creatures that dwell on the sandy bottom or inhabit the reefs—things you can’t see when you are just looking down from the surface. It was so cool to be a part of the underwater world! I was breathing and swimming and felt totally normal, no problems with pressure changes or anything. And I was so excited to be doing something that I thought I would never do!

During that week, I really bonded with Marcus (if you couldn’t tell by now). Before you get any ideas, I should let you know that he is happily married and raves about his amazing wife, Ashley, every chance he gets. Actually, that is probably a huge factor in our bonding. But, geez, this guy is awesome!! I don’t know how people wouldn’t like him.  Originally from Sweden, he moved to New York to live with his aunt as a teenager, then stayed for college, and married his high school sweetheart. He works in tech and recently quit his job to start his own business and they live in Mountain View, CA, right near where I was living before Peace Corps!

Marcus has this giant smile that exudes kindness, and he takes interest in other people. His natural curiosity was also evident while we were diving together because he would always swim off a little ways to explore without realizing that he was wandering away from the group. His sincere concern for others, light-heartedness, and silliness opened the door to create a genuine connection between us. I felt like I could totally be myself and speak my mind the way I would with one of my own brothers or sisters. I got so lucky to get paired with such a fun, supportive dive buddy because he really made my first experiences diving unforgettable. And if he knew that I was writing all of this, he would probably blush because he is humble, too. What a wonderful person to have as a friend!

Speaking of friends, when my girl friends left, I found that I was almost completely surrounded by men: I was the only girl in the dorm room with three guys (a Canadian, a Swede, and an Aussie), I was the only girl in my class, and I was often the only girl on some of the dives and when all of us would go out to dinner after we were done diving for the day. Contrary to what life was for me back in Guatemala—if you are seen with a guy, it promotes speculation, gossip, and even jealousy (coming from both men and women), it felt nice for it to be okay to have male friends again. These guys from all over the developed world were easygoing and respectful and conversation came easy without the usual sense of expectation lingering in the air. Realizing how comfortable I was around these guys and knowing that I could have male friends again was so liberating!

I ended up hanging out with the boys all week, especially Marcus and Vijay, and we always had a great time. Marcus and Vijay were always inviting everyone along with them to have dinner and it was hard for anyone to turn down their invitations because everyone knew that a fun time was guaranteed with those two! One night, we all headed to the Coconut Tree restaurant and settled into an area with couches, chairs, tables, and a TV to get dinner together and watch some big soccer games (USA vs. Honduras, then Panama vs. Mexico). I picked a spot on the couch, plopped down, and didn’t get off my butt for four hours straight! Through dinner and both of the games, I didn’t move because I was so relaxed and not worried one bit about time. I can’t remember the last time I did that. It was a good feeling.

Vincent, Marcus, Vijay, me, and Rudy getting ready to head out for our night dive.

Vincent, Marcus, Vijay, me, and Rudy getting ready to head out for our night dive.

On Thursday, Marcus and I victoriously completed our Open Water dive course and to celebrate, we both signed up for the night dive that Rudy was leading that same evening. Now this was new territory and we weren’t sure what to expect, but we all jumped in the water just as it was getting dark, flipped on our lights, and submerged. It was actually a little frightening, especially when I thought I lost the group underwater (but then I found them). I sort of felt like we were in space—not that I know what outer space is like—because it was so dark and it looked like everyone was just defying gravity as they floated along. Marcus and Vijay were paired up so I stayed close to Rudy since I knew he had experience in spotting the nocturnal creatures (and since he had been my instructor, I figured he could save me if something bad happened to me in the dark).

Sure enough, we saw creatures! The first sets of eyes I spotted were a bunch of tiny red glowing pairs flashing up at us when the light hit them. It was creepy! They looked like little devil eyes spying on us; I found out later that they were shrimp. We saw a bunch of other fish peering out at us with one eye from their cubbies and holes among the reefs, and a couple other active creatures moving along the sea floor or across reefs. Then the jackpot: not one, but TWO good-sized octopi on the search for their nightly feasts. They were beautiful—shimmering with iridescence beneath the white light of our flashlights—and they moved with such agility, landing on the reef and billowing up to inhale whatever they could catch before gliding off to the next hunting spot. I think my favorite underwater creature might have to be the octopus. They’re clever little guys.

At one point, we found a sand patch, knelt down together in a circle, and shut off our lights so we were in pitch darkness on the ocean floor. The point of this was to witness bioluminescence, which is a chemical reaction that produces light inside living organisms. This occurs for various biological purposes including luring prey, protecting oneself, attracting mates, and communicating, and it usually happens in the very deep parts of the ocean where light doesn’t reach or at night when sunlight is absent.

One of the most lusted after bioluminescent organisms is the string of pearls. A string of pearls appears as tiny bright blue balls of light that flash in a string-like pattern, one little ball at a time, in sequential motion, and then slowly fade away. They look like the running lights on arcade machines. The organism that produces the “string of pearls” is a tiny crustacean called an ostracod and the light pattern it produces is for mating purposes. (Ostracods in other parts of the world use the bioluminescence as a defense mechanism, but only the ones in the Caribbean use it as a mating call.) Anyway, it was neat to be among the bioluminescence because it really did seem like we were among the stars, twinkling around us.

Back on land (and Marcus and I on a high from our eventful day), we all showered and headed out for dinner together before running off to karaoke night on the island and doing a couple hits together. “Don’t Stop Believin’” anyone? It was a great way to end our “graduation day.” At that point, I wasn’t sure when I was going to leave the island but I wasn’t even thinking about it; I was just enjoying my time and company. Friday I did the same thing—soaked up the awesomeness of the island, the dive shop family, and my buddies. I even squeezed in some journal time. I haven’t been more relaxed than I felt that week in Roatán, and I knew that was saying something. Even as I write this now, I know that my experience in Roatán will be one I cherish forever…and one I will never be able to repeat, as much as I would like to.

Me, at dusk on my last night in Roatán.

Me, at dusk on my last night in Roatán.

On Saturday morning, I finally left the island (after serious deliberations about staying for another couple days or more). I had a new travel buddy, Toby, the Swedish guy who was in the dorms with me, and we were headed for Copán to find Kathy. Jenny had left Kath the day before to get back to Guatemala for her flight home, so in Kathy-fashion, she collected new friends to keep her company until I found her again. It was another full travel day, and we were tired, but went out for a little while anyway with Kathy and her new friends. Copán is a colonial town with cobblestone streets similar to Antigua, Guatemala but a lot smaller, mellower, and safer.

Toby and I getting in to the edge of Copán.

Toby and I getting in to the edge of Copán.

The next day, the three of us headed to the famous Maya ruins at Copán with a personal tour guide, Julio, who was part of the excavation team there as a teenager. He was great and he thoroughly explained the importance of Copán for being the economic giant during that era and then the history of the reigns of the Maya kings there (I think 18 total in that particular empire). Lots of kings, but no queens ever mentioned. Why not? Because women were not entrusted to make decisions in the Maya empire. Oh, yes, and because each king had many women to keep him company, father his children, and thus be the instruments to pass on his DNA. So that’s what the women were good for! I was wondering… And now I understand that the machismo in Guatemala, especially among towns with big indigenous populations, goes WAY back.

Toby, Kathy, and I imitating the statue of the old Maya face at Copán Ruins.

Toby, Kathy, and I imitating the statue of the old Maya face at Copán Ruins.

At the ruins, we also learned about the ancient customs, temples, tombs, and traditions. There is a well known ball game the Maya used to play on big courts that, when described, seems similar to a mix of racquetball and rugby. There would be two teams passing a heavy ball back and forth across the long alley “court” with sidewalls and launching the ball either toward a basket or toward a high stone structure on the walls that they were trying to break. (At Copán, the court was set up for the players to destroy stone structures of Macaw heads; the Scarlet Macaw is the national bird of Honduras.) A VIP was then chosen from the winning team and sacrificed—apparently it was a huge honor! And that is how the 13th king’s reign ended. Supposedly human sacrifice was rare in the Maya empire; those ball games must not have been an everyday occasion either.

The big courtyard at Copán Ruins, where the big events, ceremonies, and ball games took place.

The big courtyard at Copán Ruins, where the big events, ceremonies, and ball games took place.

We finished up with a little nature hike in late afternoon, and then we walked back to town. We got off the beaten path for dinner, thanks to Kathy, and ate at a family-run comedor where they served us gigantic chimichangas and an order of tejadas, lightly fried plantain chips with a light tomato sauce for dipping. I didn’t spend very much time interacting with locals in Honduras or studying customs; in fact, I tried to stay as far from the inner workings of this country as possible considering the reputation it has for crime. However, I did observe a couple of fun facts: 1) People are definitely taller and have eye color (more hazels and greens) that was different from the typical dark brown that many Guatemalans have; 2) Instead of the black beans that dominate the Guatemalan diet, Hondurans consume only red beans; and 3) The “typical” Honduran dish is called a baleada, which is like a little burrito and consists of a thick, fluffy flour tortilla spread with refried red beans and dry cheese and folded in thirds for the basic, but any other ingredient such as eggs, plantains, avocado, etc. can be and is often added.

Kathy and I at the Copán Ruins.

Kathy and I at the Copán Ruins.

Monday was Kathy’s and my last day together. We said goodbye to Toby in Copán then took off for the Guatemalan border, which was only 20 minutes away. (Kathy had to get back to Guatemala to start her new job, and I was on my way to El Salvador, but from Copán, the easiest route to El Salvador required me to pass through Guatemala again.) This was the first time that Kathy and I had been alone together since the day we got back from Mexico, two and a half weeks prior. It was really important for us to reconnect and review what we had just accomplished. After all, the idea for this trip started over a year ago as we sat in a café in Xela creating our “Guatemala bucket lists” and expressing a shared interest in exploring the countries that surrounded Guatemala as well. Now, at the end of July, we gave each other victorious smiles, because although we hadn’t done everything we planned on, we had done a lot, and changed the plan a hundred times along the way, but the result was lasting memories from really cool shared experiences.

This is what happens to Kathy after going non-stop at her turbo speed for a month straight. I think she was tired on her last night of vacation!

This is what happens to Kathy after going non-stop at her turbo speed for a month straight. I think she was tired on her last night of vacation!

One of the things on my Guatemala bucket list was to see the Cristo Negro, the Black Christ, at the Basilica in Esquipulas. Making a pilgrimage to Esquipulas for the sole purpose of spending some time in devotion with the Cristo Negro is a common thing for Catholics to do, especially those from Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and some from Mexico and the United States. There are several theories for why he is black: one is that the resin-saturated smoke from the incense burned in the pre-Basilica hut where Cristo Negro originally was made him darker; the other is that the creator intentionally made him dark to represent the dark-skinned indigenous people.

Kathy and I in front of the cathedral at Esquipulas.

Kathy and I in front of the Basilica at Esquipulas.

Cristo Negro is significant because paying homage and praying has resulted in miracle upon miracle over the centuries [since 1594]. Catholics from all over come to stand in line for hours just to spend a few minutes with the crucifix, after which they retreat walking backwards so as not to turn their backs on the Lord. It is really a very reverent and poignant practice. Relying on the history of what faith in Jesus Christ has done for the people and the miracles that have happened, the Cristo Negro represents optimism for a better future in Guatemala, a country that has been ravaged by oppression, discrimination, civil war, and genocide, among many other social injustices.

By the time I finished service, I thought I might have to give up that trip since Esquipulas, Chiquimula was located in the southeastern corner of Guatemala, a part of the country where few PCVs or tourists ever frequented. But it just so happened that both Kathy and I had to pass right through there that Monday so we stopped there just before lunchtime to make our promised and long-awaited date with the Cristo Negro happen. We came at the right time on a Monday afternoon during lunch so we didn’t have to wait in line at all. After we each had our visit in silence, we headed to lunch. It was an appropriate ending for our journey together.

The famous Cristo Negro inside the cathedral.

The famous Cristo Negro inside the Basilica.

Then we started the next phases of our lives. Kathy was taking on another year in Guatemala but with a different NGO, a different place to live, and a new social scene. And I was starting a solo travel adventure, ready to take on the rest of Central America. Since we had become close in PC, we hadn’t gone for periods of more than a few weeks between seeing each other and we talked much more often than that. So this was weird, knowing that we wouldn’t be in direct contact for at least a month, but probably at least 2 since I kept extending my trip…

Our last photo before we parted ways to conquer the next phases of our personal journeys.

Our last photo before we parted ways to conquer the next phases of our personal journeys.

Enjoying Nicaragua still! More to come soon!

Love,

Alexandra

Visitors Galore, Round 2: Maricela & Russell

My next visitors, Maricela and Russell, came in mid-June (2012), only two and a half weeks after Krista left. I got a 2-for-1 deal since they are a couple!

Russell, Mari, and I all attended St. Mary’s College of California together (but each of us graduated at a different time). We all met each other for the first time during a January term school trip to Ecuador in 2007. Several months after that, Mari and Russell started dating, and they eventually married in December 2011. During my service, my first trip to visit home was around the same time so I was able to attend their beautiful wedding.

They had originally planned to visit me the August before, but since I didn’t have a site assignment and I was still so new to Guatemala, we decided to postpone their trip until the following summer, after Mari finished her second year of law school and when Russell could take some time away from the business he was starting up. So although they were not my first visitors, if I had to give them a prize it would definitely be for being the Easiest Visitors.

Russell and Mari both had plenty of travel experience and backpacking under their belts and Russell is like an REI master so packing for them was a breeze. In fact, Mari packed so lightly that when she shoved all the goodies that they were bringing for me into her bag, it nearly doubled the weight! They spent a total of 13 days with me in Guatemala and I hardly felt the time go by because it was so enjoyable and the three of us moved rather seamlessly. I had created an itinerary for them as well and gave it to them ahead of time so everyone was aware of the plan—although subject to change, of course. I would always give them a heads up on what time we needed to head out and what we needed to bring, and we would always be ready to go and help out with preparation details such as cooking and cleaning up. No complaints, no problems. Just simple, easy, and fun.

Another advantage to traveling with them was that they are a married couple so they functioned like a well-oiled machine. They already knew each other so well that if any kinks (such as injuries) came up, they were practically undetectable because they were solved or dealt with immediately and without making a big deal about anything. Some of my single visitors were just as laidback, however, the difference is that when I had only one visitor, I felt like I had to keep him or her entertained; one the other hand, I didn’t worry about Mari and Russell because they could entertain each other. I also knew that if I needed some time to myself to work or just be alone, I felt comfortable enough communicating that to them, knowing they wouldn’t be offended in the least.

Russell and Mari in front of the cathedral in Antigua's Parque Central.

Russell and Mari in front of the cathedral in Antigua’s Parque Central.

One really neat thing about their visit as well was that I had them completely to myself for almost two whole weeks. I felt lucky because I know how busy they both are and I know that no one gets that much of their time in such big blocks—not even them! Since their honeymoon, I don’t think that they had had the opportunity to slow down, so I know they really enjoyed the time away, relaxing, exploring, and getting to know Guatemala and the life of PCV a little bit.

They arrived in Guatemala in the evening on a Thursday and I met them at the airport. We had a great car ride back to Antigua, and everyone got a good night’s sleep. On Friday, the day after their big travel day, we just hung around Antigua. Antigua is usually a first tourist stop in Guatemala because it is the closest touristy town to the airport, only a 45-minute drive away. Hiking to the Cross on the Hill is always a nice activity because it includes exercise and culminates in a rewarding view of the city so of course we went there after a leisurely breakfast. The rest of the day was just spent getting familiar with the town, stopping into churches, enjoying meals together, and catching up in this comfortable little town run mostly by foreigners.

Mari and I at the Cross-on-the-Hill overlooking Antigua.

Mari and I at the Cross-on-the-Hill overlooking Antigua.

In late afternoon, we hopped on a chicken bus for Alotenango to spend some time with my host family from training, and that evening, we went out with Fluvia, another host sister, to participate in a Catholic celebration of San Juan (the saint of Alotenango) at another family member’s home. It was sort of a big deal—one woman, the hostess of the celebration, was so overcome with emotion that it made her sick and she had to be taken to the hospital! Talk about an off-the-beaten-path cultural experience for Russell and Mari! That night, we stayed with my family in Alotenango.

Mari, Russell, me, and Papa Julio during lunch in Alotenango.

Mari, Russell, me, and Papa Julio during lunch in Alotenango.

On Saturday morning after breakfast we left with one of my host sisters, Helen, to accompany her to the filming of her 2-hour weekly program for kids on a local TV channel in Alotenango, called “Jesus TV.” She had been running this program every Saturday since January, accompanied by her little helper, Sofie; it is focused toward children’s learning, will sometimes cover topics like friendship or roles in the family, and usually always includes some special song or art project (recorded live) that the viewers can learn and do themselves at home.

This particular day, guess who made a guest appearance? All three of us!!! It was a Fathers’ Day focused program, but there was a special section for the American visitors, during which we were interrogated and then focused the discussion on Mari and Russell’s relationship, how long they had dated before marriage, and what some of the dating customs are like in the United States. Mari encouraged the young viewers to take their time, but noted that every courtship is unique and some couples do get married after less time dating.

The whole situation was pretty funny because we knew we were going to appear on Helen’s show, but we didn’t know what to expect. The show was filmed in a small, narrow room with terrible ventilation so it was hot and stuffy. Plus there was no script so we didn’t know what Helen would be asking us or how we should respond. Oh, yes, and it was LIVE! No pressure or anything. We had a great time and laughed a lot, then helped Helen with her DIY craft for the day: a box made out of popsicle sticks that could be used to store jewelry, keys, photos, etc. It was meant to give the kids an idea for a Fathers’ Day present for their dads.

Sophie, Helen, me, Mari, and Russell with the popsicle-stick boxes after the show.

Sophie, Helen, me, Mari, and Russell with the popsicle-stick boxes after the show.

After the program, we spent some time with the family who lived in the house where the studio was. The mom was making tortillas, Guatemalan style on a hot comal and invited each of us to take a shot at it. Making perfectly round tortillas without holes in them proved to be a difficult task! Then we returned to my host family’s home to have a big lunch, everyone together as a family. Russell loved my host dad, Papa Julio, and the epic stories he told as he gave Russell the customary rooftop tour of the town. And Mari had a great opportunity to use her Spanish with the rest of the family.

Russell and his tortilla.

Russell and his tortilla.

From there, we said our goodbyes and took off for a place called Earth Lodge, an eco-friendly lodge set on an avocado farm in the hills about half an hour outside of Antigua. They have tree cabins and A-frame cabins as well as dorms and even tent-camping available. It is so peaceful up there, and I could tell that Russell and Mari both enjoyed being so close to nature. It was like camping out in the woods, only in nice little cabins with real beds, blankets, and pillows, plus great family-style dinners instead. We were only there for one night, which definitely wasn’t enough, but we had to get back to my site for the workweek.

Mari & Russell at Earth Lodge.

Mari & Russell at Earth Lodge.

Mari and Russell fit right in at my place and quickly picked up on my methodology for dishwashing, pantry set-up, bathroom use, and bucket bathing. They were even so tolerant of the small space that I called mine—one room with a bathroom; the garden area, hammock, and kitchen set-up in the corridor provided extra space to prevent anyone from feeling locked up. Just as Krista did, Russell and Mari both renamed my cat during the week. Russell’s nickname for her was “Relámpago Loco,” or Crazy Lightning, and Mari dubbed her “Preggers” after we decided my poor little kitten was definitely already pregnant at only 8 ½ months old.

On Monday, Russell and Mari accompanied me to my Mujeres de Vida Saludable charla, this time the nutrition theme was carbohydrates with the accompanying carb recipe for dulce de leche in the form of a warm drink served with pan dulce. On Tuesday, we headed out for my usual visits to Pajquiej, but that Tuesday I only scheduled a visit to Carmen’s house because she was excited to teach them how to make tamales de arroz, which is a lengthy process. They both loved Carmen, although since she speaks Spanish faster than the typical Guatemalan (Guate Spanish is usually extremely slow) it was a little difficult to keep up with her! We had a fantastic lunch, chowing down on food we had just prepared together, and then we hitched a ride back to town from the main road.

Mari & Russell making tamales de arroz at Carmen's house.

Mari & Russell making tamales de arroz at Carmen’s house.

Hitching a ride in the back of a big truck that was going way too fast down the curvy dirt road!

Hitching a ride in the back of a big truck that was going way too fast down the curvy dirt road!

On Wednesday, we took a day at home to rest, do laundry, recuperate, and relax. When we got restless in the afternoon, we decided to take a hike up to the big hill in San Andrés that overlooks the entire town. Ten minutes into our hike, a storm rolled in and it started pouring on us, but since we were geared up with raincoats, ponchos, and umbrellas, we carried on, periodically stopping to crouch down on the side of the mountain under our protection during particularly heavy bouts of rain. It was very refreshing and great exercise! In the early evening, I took them over to introduce them to Tayra and family, but we didn’t stay long because supposedly Tayra was going to be busy that week so we hadn’t made any plans.

Russell & Mari, contemplating life while overlooking San Andrés from its high point.

Russell & Mari, contemplating life while overlooking San Andrés from its high point.

On Thursday, we went out to Pajquiej again for my Health Promoter training. Again, it was exciting for everyone to have visitors. Mari and Russell thought it was neat to “see me in action” with my PC work, and my ladies were definitely on their best behavior, although some were a little timid. The little ones were not the least bit shy and wanted to show off what they had learned as much as possible, asking me if they could sing the “wash your hands” song for Russell and Mari. The kids loved having an audience that was new and different form their normal family and community members.

The little ones in Pajquiej, singing to Mari & Russell.

The little ones in Pajquiej, singing to Mari & Russell.

That afternoon we walked all the way back home from the village and had a nice little Guatemalan-style dinner with Victoria, one of the health center educators, joining us. Mari and Russell shared that some of their favorite characters they had met along the way were Carmen for her go-getter attitude and friendly personality, Victoria for her calmness and attentiveness, Papa Julio (in Alotenango) for his epic story-telling, and Rosa, my counterpart, for her lightheartedness, constant laughter, and gigantic beautiful smile.

After the Health Promoter training, Russell & Mari walking back to town from Pajquiej.

After the Health Promoter training, Russell & Mari walking back to town from Pajquiej.

It was great having them in my house. First of all, it was really important bonding time for Mari and me since it had been awhile since we had spent some serious quality time together. Additionally, Russell and Mari learned my system, took charge of cooking some meals, shared ideas with me, and provided great company. When I needed to work, they managed themselves and even went for a stroll around town and through the market. They were very comfortable there, and I was so happy to be able to share my PC life with them. I was impressed by how easily they fit in as well!

Russell, the ultimate outdoorsy handyman and the guy responsible for the majority of my REI collection, was totally in his element in my rural town. Not only did he make a pair of sandals for me using only a flat piece or rubber and shoestrings, but he also created a natural candle with a can, oil, and a paper napkin as a wick to ward off the crazy flying worm-ants that were invading our space during that time. Russell has always been like a big brother figure to me so it was really fun to share more adventures together. While with me in Guatemala, it seemed that Russell was relishing the opportunity to have his very own mini-PC experience. He used the time to gain a better understanding of the Peace Corps model of sustainability in development work, and he decided to incorporate this inspiration into the business model for the start-up he had been working on. (More on that later.)

In addition to being with me, Mari and Russell interacted with locals often as well. Mari has Mexican in her blood and had studied abroad in Mexico several years back so her Spanish was good and she enjoyed the practice. Russell had studied Spanish before, but hadn’t had as much exposure to the language as his wife, so the fluidity wasn’t quite there but the fact that he was trying and was friendly to everyone and curious about everyone really made a difference. On the flip side, Guatemalans also had their own language barrier issues: whereas Maricela’s Mexican-rooted name was a breeze to pronounce, Russell’s name was absolutely butchered. The pronunciation came out in various forms, including Brazo, Ruso, and Reginald.

On Friday, we left my town to continue our tour. I planned to take them to a fantastic place on the lake for lunch that day: a restaurant in San Juan La Laguna called El Artesano that offers the best wine and cheese experience in the whole country. On our way out there, we found out that our 8 AM shuttle to Semuc Champey for the following day was moved to a 2 PM departure so we made a spontaneous decision to spend the night on the lake at Iguana Perdida in Santa Cruz La Laguna that night which took off all time pressure to hurry through lunch, leaving us to enjoy the most lovely and relaxed afternoon.

Lunch at El Artesano with wine and a selection of 26 different cheeses served with fruits, nuts, and a marmalade.

Lunch at El Artesano with wine and a selection of 26 different cheeses served with fruits, nuts, and a marmalade.

On Saturday afternoon, we started the long, bumpy journey for Lanquín, the town we stay in to have access to Semuc Champey. Learning from my trip with Krista, I planned for us to stay three nights there with Mari and Russell so as not to feel rushed. (And since they had the flexibility in their schedule with a longer stay in Guatemala, they had the time.) Since we arrived late that evening, we just checked in to El Retiro and settled down for the night in our thatched hut by the river. The next morning was extremely leisurely and included a delicious breakfast, lounging around, and yoga on the dock. It was a perfect start to the last leg of the trip.

Mari on the dock at El Retiro.

Mari on the dock at El Retiro.

After lunch we signed up for a 2-hour inter-tubing trip down the river, which was good fun, but the really cool part of the day was the bat cave tour we did at dusk. The guide drove us out to the limestone caves before dusk and we hiked around inside the caves for about 45 minutes observing the various formations, exploring, and even holding a giant cave spider by its leg (for just long enough to get snap a photo and pass the spider on!). Just as dusk was approaching, we stood around the cave entrance and witnessed thousands of bats flying overhead and around us to exit the cave in search of their dinner and other nightly activities. Because of the way they use their sonar radar based on echolocation and the vibration of sound waves, they would not fly into us or touch us even though they were so close to us. It was amazing!

Bats flying out of their cave at dusk!!

Bats flying out of their cave at dusk!!

On our next full day, we went on the Semuc Champey tour (the same one I did with Krista). We started in the morning with the candlelight cave tour where we were had only a candle and our bathing suits to swim, climb, jump, and explore inside. While Mari was descending a waterfall with the aid of a rope and rock “steps,” the pressure of the waterfall on her back aggravated a prior injury and sent her back into a spasm, putting her out for the rest of the day. So unfortunately Russell and Mari didn’t have the chance to hike or to the Mirador to see the Semuc Champey pools nor did they get to play in them, however, it turned out to be a good thing that they went back to the lodge because Russell spotted and killed a scorpion that was crawling around our hut, earning the name, “Reginald, the scorpion-slayer” for the remainder of the trip.

Russell, Mari, and I in the bat caves.

Russell, Mari, and I in the bat caves.

As is characteristic of most trips outside of a person’s comfort zone and daily routine, people have the chance to clear their head, get focused, and make space for new ideas. As Russell was getting inspired for his business, Mari’s mind was going, too. Right in the middle of law school, she was preparing papers on various subjects. She was very passionate about one particular topic—that of women and the time-old discussion of how to balance career and family, and I was the lucky one who got to listen to her theories, ideas, and plans and occasionally contribute to the idea bouncing. It was always fun for me to see how excited my visitors would get over their plans for their returns back home. Every single visitor left refreshed.

During the last afternoon in Antigua, we did the usual end of the trip errands—arranging airport transportation, checking in for flights, last-minute souvenir shopping, etc. We were also able to squeeze in a visit to the San Francisco church where the remains of Hermano Pedro, Guatemala’s very own saint, are located. In the late afternoon, we stopped by Hotel Santo Domingo, a former convent and now the only 5-star hotel in Guatemala, to tour the grounds and decided that if there would be any way to convince Mari’s parents (mainly her dad was the one who needed convincing) to visit Guatemala someday, it would only be possible using this hotel as bait!

Russell and I at Hotel Santo Domingo near the advertisement for their restaurant. At first, we thought he was praying being that we were in a former convent and all; it wasn't until after the photo that we saw the pan and spatula in his hands...

Russell and I at Hotel Santo Domingo near the advertisement for their restaurant. At first, we thought he was praying being that we were in a former convent and all; it wasn’t until after the photo that we saw the pan and spatula in his hands…

For Mari and Russell’s last morning in Guatemala, we went to breakfast at Tenedor del Cerro, a restaurant run through Hotel Santo Domingo that is set up on a hill with a beautiful view overlooking Antigua. After that, it was time for them to head to the airport. I actually had a really hard time saying goodbye to them because we had had the best time together and the trip was so pleasant. I had gotten used to having them around and having the in-person support. Thinking that I was going to be very alone again was what got to me, but knowing that they were going home relaxed and that they were taking a piece of Guatemala with them made me content.

FOLLOW-UP

Guess what? They came back!!! During their first trip, Russell had made a connection with another PCV and friend of mine, Jesse, and for months, they were collaborating together on one aspect of Russell’s business. Part of Jesse’s PC service involved working with small indigenous co-ops in order to form smooth-running businesses of their own. Russell was interested in working with co-ops that make their own fabric-based products using natural dyes; Jesse and Russell were hoping to help develop this co-op to the point where they could produce their products (specifically bags) in bulk and sell to bigger businesses.

So in January 2013, Russell, Mari, and her brother, Stuart, planned a one-week trip back to Guatemala with a work focus. They were going to be meeting the founder of the co-op, interviewing him, selecting fabrics, and approving the design and quality of the bags that the co-op was producing for them.

It just so happened that they were here for my 26th birthday! Although they weren’t staying with me this time around (all three of them stayed the whole week in Jesse’s one-big-room apartment with him near Xela) and I had nothing to do with the agenda, planning, or guiding of their trip, I still managed to get across the country and spend some time with them while they were here. We celebrated my birthday at Jesse’s place and ended up having a big group of my other PCV friends over to join in. It was a fun night, however, I realized after the fact that being surrounded by so many big PC personalities all at once in a small space might have been just a bit overwhelming for the non-PC bodies present, especially since they were exhausted from the work and all the running around they had done that day.

Peace Corps friends and friends from home all together in Guatemala!

Peace Corps friends and friends from home all together in Guatemala!

Jesse managed to get 26 Maya-ceremony candles on my Funfetti birthday cake (that we all ended up scooping out of pan because it was too warm to slice). Fun birthday celebration with good friends all together!!!

Jesse managed to get 26 Maya-ceremony candles on my Funfetti birthday cake (that we all ended up scooping out of pan because it was too warm to slice). Fun birthday celebration with good friends all together!!!

The next day I accompanied them to their work activity in an outlying village where they were going to meet with Juan Vicente, the man in charge of the co-operation where the bags were being produced. We met the family, drank atol made from maize (corn), examined the bags, and even helped the mom and little girl remove dried corn kernels from their cobs. I think Mari’s brother, Stuart, particularly enjoyed the interaction with a local family since he hadn’t had much prior experience in rural towns of developing countries. Stuart and Russell set up the video equipment and Jesse translated as Russell conducted the interview, asking Juan various questions about the history of the business, the techniques used in weaving, and how the co-op functions. It was an eventful and productive day.

Mari & I drinking our atol de maiz from gourds.

Mari & I drinking our atol de maiz from gourds.

I wasn’t with them during the other parts of the trip, but from what I heard, they seemed to get around and get a lot done for the business. Unfortunately with the small amount of time they had, the trip felt rushed and was a little stressful. They realized that there was a lot more they needed to do than they had expected and that things took a lot longer. So although it may not have been the most organized or relaxing trip to Guatemala, they learned a lot that will help make the business even better.

Russell, Stuart, and Mari all working hard to keep things functioning well during Juan's interview.

Russell, Stuart, and Mari all working hard to keep things functioning well during Juan’s interview.

Now, finally, on to the business! Russell’s company is called GAD Equation. GAD stands for “give a day” because for every item sold, a portion of the profit is donated to buy a day of education for a child or teenager at a school in Ecuador. It is based on the Teach A Man to Fish model. The unique fair trade products are made at co-ops around the world (India and Guatemala are two examples). The “equation” aspect is that Russell’s business is employing small, local business in nations with struggling economies to make these products, and every item sold purchases a day of school for youth in another developing nation, thus giving back to society via education so in essence, buyers are supporting international development in two forms. If you are interested, the link to his business site is http://www.gadequation.com.

Some of the products offered include purses, bags, iPad cases, jewelry, and scarves, to name a couple. (The bag that was in production while they were here in January is the “Pajarita” bag and it is beautiful! Check it out here: http://www.gadequation.com/Pajarita_p/pa-0001.htm!)

Since their second trip, Russell has focused much of his attention on his business while Mari was busy finishing law school at Phoenix School of Law. She graduated in May and was invited to present papers at conferences in both Ireland and Amsterdam during the past few months. She is currently working with Russell’s dad in his insurance business until she disappears in a couple months to start studying for the Bar Exam (in order to be qualified to practice law). Stuart is taking his college courses, but last I heard, his trip to Guatemala might have him pointed in a different direction than he was before. He got a lot out of the visit!

I’m looking forward to spending more time with Russell & Mari when I get back before Mari goes into hiding. :) They are flexible and always up for an adventure! It was such a pleasure to have them in Guatemala with me—twice!

Mari, Russell, & I at breakfast together at the end of their first trip to Guatemala.

Mari, Russell, & I at breakfast together at the end of their first trip to Guatemala.

I am still traveling (currently in Nicaragua) and still writing, making new friends, and enjoying this special time. A review of my trip to Honduras is up next!

Love,

Alexandra

Post PC Travels: Mexico

Speaking of my travels, I figure I can post a couple paragraphs country per country as I write about my visitors trips that way I can stay somewhat current with where the heck I am in the world and you all can see some pictures of what the rest of Central America (and México) looks like. I’ll start with the first leg of the trip, on which Kathy and I embarked together two days after we COS’d: México!

Kathy and I on Day 1 of our long-awaited backpacking adventure, ready to take on México!

Kathy and I on Day 1 of our long-awaited backpacking adventure, ready to take on México!

On the 4th of July, instead of barbecuing and setting off a bunch of fireworks, Kathy and I celebrated our American independence—feeling very proud of the service we had just completed in the name of patriotism to our own country, the United States of America—riding a handful of buses from Guatemala to San Cristóbal de Las Casas in the state of Chiapas, México, a small colonial town similar to Antigua, Guatemala where a ton of expatriates and other foreigners like to settle in or just hang out for a while. I was surprised by how progressive the town seemed: restaurants of every kind and live music around every corner, as well as streets lined with two trashcans on every block—one bin for organic trash and the other for inorganic. I was so impressed.

We got in a little late and stayed the night in top bunks at this awful, smelly, 12-person dorm room at a hostel suggested to us by some friends in Guatemala. (San Cristóbal is a popular hangout spot for Guatemalans in Xela or Huehuetenango as well since it is only a hop, skip, and a jump away from those places; they’ll go a couple times a year. It’s like me taking 2-3 trips to Southern California per year just to visit friends or have a road trip.) I told Kathy I was never doing that again and that I vote that we arrive early enough to find a selection of private double rooms to choose from. She was pretty much on the same page.

We only had one full day in San Cristóbal, and I like to say that we took advantage of every second of it, but that would only have been if we hadn’t gone out salsa dancing the night before…and then to a karaoke place…and then to the Central Park to be serenaded for 45 minutes by some new friends and local musicians. (Guatemala doesn’t exactly have the buzzing nightlife that other countries have, nor is it very safe, so we were appreciative of the cultural change.)  Because bedtime didn’t happen until around 4:30 AM, the next day definitely had a late start. We spent the rest of the day getting a feel of the town, wandering around, and just being so excited to be in México.

We practically ran over to the street vendors to eat as many tacos as we could and to load them with spicy salsa! I said over and over again in Guatemala that I could go the rest of my life without eating another corn tortilla or fried plantain and be perfectly content; but Mexican corn tortillas are another story: they are thin, flavorful, and actually stay together when you are trying to eat tacos. Oh, and they smell delicious!!! That goes for salsas as well. Guatemalans use one basic tomato salsa, called chirmol, which is made from roasted tomatoes mashed up with some onion, cilantro, and a couple pinches of salt. And their signature hot sauce, Picamás, is also known as “pica-menos.” A pickled mix of jalapeño, carrot, and onion is sometimes offered if you want something slightly hotter, but it is nothing compared to what México has to offer. México is famous for the flavor, spiciness, and variety of salsas it produces. YUM! It was about time to add a little spice to my life…

First tacos in México! 15 cents apiece...

First tacos in México! 15 cents apiece…

As we were wandering around, Kathy and I spotted a woman we knew: Melissa, from San Francisco, served in the Peace Corps with us in Guatemala, left last year in October, and had been living in San Cristóbal de Las Casas for the past several months, making money by playing her guitar and singing in public venues. It was neat to run into her because she showed us around and took us to her favorite spots in town for the rest of the day. Right before she dropped us off at the bus station that night (because Kathy had scheduled an overnight bus to Oaxaca on our itinerary), she took us to a local spot to grab dinner. Then we were on our way! This was the first of two overnight buses we took during our time in México, and they actually aren’t so bad as long as you make sure you are warm enough and have earplugs. It saved us paying two nights of lodging and gave us more time to participate in daytime activities at our destinations.

Kathy, me, and Melissa in San Cristóbal de Las Casas. (We walked up to that church behind us after taking this pic.)

Kathy, me, and Melissa in San Cristóbal de Las Casas. (We walked up to that church behind us after taking this pic.)

I wasn’t sure what to expect from Oaxaca, but as soon as I set foot in that town, I fell in love with it. I thought to myself, “Wow. I could see myself living here.” There is so much this city has to offer! It is clean, cultured, and classy and also known as the culinary capital of México. There is so much to do and see, or you can just sit around in a very safe public place and people-watch. I was particularly excited that we were going to stay in one place for a whole 2 nights (and 3 days) because that actually gave us the opportunity to relax and get to know the city some. Well, really, the popular thing to do in Oaxaca is eat your way through it and that is exactly what we did!

A procession in the streets of Oaxaca celebrating the upcoming Guelaguetza Festival. This is one example of the vibrant culture that is very much alive in Oaxaca.

A procession in the streets of Oaxaca celebrating the upcoming Guelaguetza Festival. This is one example of the vibrant culture that is very much alive in Oaxaca.

Oaxaca is famous for the variety of moles (“MOH-lay”), a typical “sauce” that is flavored with all different kinds of spices and usually served with meat or over enchiladas, rice, etc., it produces. It has something like eight different types of moles: green mole, yellow mole, black mole (that is made with chocolate/cacao), red mole with fruits, black mole with nuts, pepían mole, etc. Other countries prepare moles as well—for example, Guatemala makes a sweet black mole made with cacao served over boiled plantains, but they originated in Oaxaca, México, and we attempted to try as many of them as we could. The red mole with an almond base was my favorite!

Kathy and I among all the varieties of moles at a mole shop in the market.

Kathy and I among all the varieties of moles at a mole shop in the market.

In addition to the moles, Kathy and I tried to eat just about every kind of street food or “typical” dish we could get our hands on in those few days we had in Oaxaca. It is so interesting that all I wanted was street food in México because I generally avoided most street food in Guatemala so I didn’t get sick or because I usually cooked my own food (and mostly because the most common street food there is fried chicken and French fries…). We ate everything from carne asada, pork, and sausage grilled and served with giant tortillas and all the grilled veggie fixings and sauces to churros stuffed and drizzled with lechera (a sweet, milky cream sauce) and cajeta (goat milk caramel sauce, another Mexican specialty). In between, we consumed horchata, fresh fruit from roadside stands, traditional hot chocolate made from cacao, empanadas, the typical Oaxacan cheese that comes looking like a ball of thick white ribbon all wound up, chapulines (toasted grasshoppers seasoned with garlic, lime, and salt), and chocolate flan. Our taste buds were SO happy!!!

In Oaxaca, we did sign up for a full day tour of some of the highlights that sit just outside the city. It was an excellent deal for six stops and it took up our whole day from 10 AM until 6:30 PM. Our first stop was at the Tule tree that is over 2,000 years old and is famous in Maya history: supposedly Quetzalcoatl, the important Maya warrior and leader, struck his staff in the ground at this site, causing this giant tree to grow. The next spot we went was called Hierve El Agua, a spot overlooking lush canyons where used-to-be waterfalls, now petrified, are at a standstill over the cliffs. This is a great hiking spot, and there are pools that form from the natural vents that are still bubbling. Visitors are allowed to go for a dip here, and even though the water was cold, Kathy and I got in!

Hierve El Agua, where we went swimming in the natural pool surrounded by underground vents by the edge of the cliff right above one of the petrified waterfalls.

Hierve El Agua, where we went swimming in the natural pool surrounded by underground vents by the edge of the cliff right above one of the petrified waterfalls.

After swimming, we were taken to an amazing buffet lunch where we had the opportunity to taste a bunch of moles side by side, as well as many other typical dishes and desserts from the region. Then we went on a quick tour of the Mitla ruins, where the majority of what we saw was old tombs. Our next stop was at Teotitlán del Valle where a local family gave us a weaving demonstration that included some history, the traditional techniques, an explanation of how different colors and shades of dyes are obtained, and a glimpse of how the machinery works.

Their work was so unique and beautiful! I took interest in a small tapestry with vibrant shades of purple creating a neat design and asked how much it cost. The woman said its value was $175, and then she picked up a slightly larger weaving with the same colors and said the bigger one was only $300. I was thinking, “Darn. This is way out of my budget. I only took out $300 for the entire WEEK in México! I’ll have to come back some day when I can actually afford an authentic Mexican tapestry…” I told her that I didn’t have that kind of money right now and she replied, “We accept credit cards.” I got wide-eyed and sort of laughed in disbelief, and then I had to make myself wait outside. I remembered that I wasn’t an off-the-beaten-path PCV in Guatemala anymore, but an actual tourist in México; they are different worlds. It had been awhile since I was smacked upside the face by commercialism…

Our last stop on the tour was at a mezcal factory. Mezcal is a type of alcohol that comes from the agave plant and is processed in México; it is similar to tequila. At the factory, we were walked through the process of how mezcal is made and how old the agave plant has to be before it is ready for harvest (7-8 years!). Then we sat around a table munching on fried grasshoppers while sampling several forms of mezcal: three different liquor forms of various ages and a handful of creamy mezcal liqueurs with flavors such as coffee, mocha, and cherry almond. It was a fun way to end the tour right before our bus ride back into town, and every single person was worn out, happy, and extremely satisfied with our day.

The next day in Oaxaca was supposed to be a mellow day, but I had gotten my hands on a city map with 69 “points of interest” that we used to get to know the city some. Since we had already covered a portion of the city during just a couple hours on our first afternoon, I figured it wouldn’t be hard to do the rest on our last full day there. So Kathy willingly surrendered the map to me and we ended up at parks, markets, photo galleries, and museums, but really the “self-guided tour of Oaxaca,” led by me, turned into a scavenger hunt for all the Catholic churches in town. I was completely in awe of the strong Catholic influence in Oaxaca. Catholicism was something I thought I would be surrounded by in Guatemala and was shocked to learn that the religious population is increasingly becoming Evangelical, especially in many rural communities.

Kathy and I in the bell tower at one of the churches we visited in Oaxaca.

Kathy and I in the bell tower at one of the churches we visited in Oaxaca.

In Oaxaca alone, there are 23 Catholic churches, including a breathtaking Cathedral and an ornate Basilica. I felt a little bad dragging Kathy all through town trying to find all the churches, but she was actually super into it, asking questions and inquiring about different themes in Catholicism based on what she observed. A few of the churches were closed, but we were able to walk in, look around, and spend a few still moments in the ones that were open. We even got a personalized tour of one church by the keeper just as he was opening it up for the day. He took us up to the bell tower AND let us walk on the roof and climb up a dome! By the time we had to call an end to our tour and prepare for our next overnight bus journey back to San Cristóbal de Las Casas, we had successfully visited 21 Catholic churches in Oaxaca, missing only 2 on the outskirts of town that we’ll just have to get to next time…

The Basilica in Oaxaca

The Basilica in Oaxaca

Back in San Cristóbal, we arrived in the morning so we had plenty of time to seek out a suitable and very peaceful place to stay for our next night. We did some serious reading, writing, and relaxing that day, as well as book our next day’s tour. The only plans we had set for the day were to meet up with a woman named Ann at 6 PM. Through the Peace Corps network, we got into contact with Ann, who is a former PC Country Director of the country of Suriname (in South America). She first served as a PCV in the Philippines when she was in her late 40s, and when the Philippines program got shut down, she continued working with Peace Corps and ultimately spent 20 years with the organization. She is now living in San Cristóbal de Las Casas with her husband, John (who also used to work for PC as a host country national in the Philippines), and they are working toward opening a beautiful, small hotel there in the very near future.

When we arrived at their home, we figured that we would be having dinner with them, but what we didn’t expect was to be completely wined and dined by them. First we got a tour of their soon-to-be-opened hotel on the ground floor, then we spent some time at their residence on the second floor. They had prepared a selection of delectable appetizers and snacks that they served along with a glass of wine. And then we all sat around chatting for an hour or two before heading to dinner at a fancy little steakhouse that they treated us to as well.

Me with Ann and John in their gorgeous home in San Cristóbal de Las Casas.

Me with Ann and John in their gorgeous home in San Cristóbal de Las Casas.

They not only spoiled us, but they made us feel welcome and like part of the family as soon as they met us. It was an obvious example of how we, as RPCVs, are always going to be a part of the Peace Corps family. There is a special type of bond—built on trust, admiration, respect, and shared experiences—that PC people share. Before meeting Ann, Kathy and I were like, “Whoa. We hanging out with a former Country Director,” so there was a natural sense of awe and respect, but the really neat part was that Ann and John were so down-to-earth and seemed to admire us just as much as we did them. So we swapped PC stories, plans for the future, and big ideas all night long. There was no other place I would have rather been that night. We had such a wonderful time with them! And that was another example of how we are going to find PC connections all around the world.

We decided to spend our last full day in México on a full-day tour that covered a lot of ground and made three major stops along the way. The first stop was a place called Agua Azul, which was a series of clear, cascading pools and small waterfalls, often compared to Semuc Champey in Guatemala. We didn’t have much time so we only walked up 25 minutes to where the waterfalls begin, then turned around and walked straight back to the bus. (I did push for an extra 5 minutes to buy a pair of amber earrings along the way from a vendor, though!)

Agua Azul

Agua Azul

Our next stop was the famous, huge Misol-Ha waterfall, where visitors can actually walk behind it and over to the other side for a different perspective. Kathy and I did have the opportunity to jump in and swim for about 10 minutes here; the water was deliciously cool!

Misol-Ha Waterfall

Misol-Ha Waterfall

The last stop was the Palenque Ruins, a very important Maya city during the Classic period of their reign. A tour guide who shared stories with us of the ancient rituals and practices of the city’s inhabitants led us. It was great that we got to see all three places in one day, but unfortunately, because every stop we made seemed so rushed, it detracted from the overall experience. Nonetheless, each destination was a unique and beautiful place in México.

Maya ruins at Palenque

Maya ruins at Palenque

Teresa Ybarra and I. Teresa was on our Palenque tour, as well as a student in the first class of women at St. Mary’s College of California (my alma mater!) in 1970, the year the college became co-ed after being men-only since 1863. It’s a small world after all…

Teresa Ybarra and I. Teresa was on our Palenque tour, as well as a student in the first class of women at St. Mary’s College of California (my alma mater!) in 1970, the year the college became co-ed after being men-only since 1863. It’s a small world after all…

In total, we spent seven nights in México, two of which were on overnight buses. Our hostel dorm rooms were $12/night, and after that, we paid for a private double room everywhere we went, the price ranging from $13.50-$22/night per person. We ate a lot of street food and prepared some meals on our own when we had access to a kitchen at any of our hostels so that really kept our costs down. We paid for two complete tours during which we saw things we probably wouldn’t have seen on our own, but the rest of the time we explored independently, using travel books and locals’ advice as our guides.

Another thing to note is the variation that occurs in the Spanish language from country to country. For example, I went from being a gringa or “canchita” in Guatemala to being a guera (white girl) just by crossing the border into México. Also, México uses the “tú” form to indicate “you,” or the informal use of the second person. This is the grammar I grew up with and was taught in school. The majority of the time in Guatemala, the formal “Usted” form is used when talking directly to people—even people you know well—instead of just when addressing grandparents, “important” people, and strangers! It is meant to be respectful, however I hated using “Usted” all the time because I felt that it put distance between the person to whom I was speaking and me. To me, using “Usted” is like tiptoeing around instead of taking bold strides. I complied (most of the time) and used “Usted,” but I felt constrained so after living in a world of uptight semantics, finally being able to use the informal “tú” form was liberating to my tongue.

On a different note of liberation, I should comment on how I felt transitioning from México back to Guatemala. The day after our Palenque tour, we headed south to the border to get back in to Northern Guatemala on our way to Flores. In México, I didn’t get much harassment nor did I ever feel unsafe, but as soon as we crossed the river border, my guard went up immediately. I attribute that to association of the country in which I lived on the defensive for over two years and to the conditioning of PC safety and security officers warning us about dangers everywhere and how we always needed to be on alert.

I was driving Kathy crazy, looking around, refusing to let my bags leave my side, assuming every person I saw was in the drug business, and searching for quick hiding spots for my valuables in case our bus was assaulted. When I realized how my survival instincts kicked in as soon as I was in Guatemala, it made me sad on so many levels: First, I was sad to leave México behind us where everything had been so positive and light-hearted. Next, because we left the modern air-conditioned vans in México only to hop onto the rickety old buses that Guatemala offers. Lastly, because I noted a real, negative physical change in my body that rooted from fear and past experiences in Guatemala. The freeness I had felt as a tourist in México had vanished and all of a sudden I was agitated, distrusting, and tense—again.

I tried to work through those feelings and relax a little bit, which I found much easier to do once we settled into our next place, which was on Lake Petén Itzá in Flores, the capital of the northern (and biggest) department of Petén in Guatemala. We were preparing for our next adventure, a trip to Tikal, for the following day. It was also at this time that Kathy’s friend from college, Joeana, was flying down from California to join us for part of our big trip. Joeana was set to spend the next 13 days with us. Once she got in the next morning, we all had breakfast by the lake, and then prepared for our afternoon “sunset tour” at Tikal.

Kathy and I in front of Lake Petén Itzá in Flores, Guatemala.

Kathy and I in front of Lake Petén Itzá in Flores, Guatemala.

During PC service, the department of Petén was off-limits for all PCVs due to the high occurrence of drug activity and crime in the department. We were allowed to fly up to Tikal from Guatemala City, but not allowed to go by land (which is a fraction of the cost of flying). Tikal is one of the highlights of Guatemala as it is one of the most famous Maya ruins sites in all the area, boasting the tallest, most grandiose temples in the whole region of the ancient Maya empire. It is one of those places that we felt we had to see before leaving, after spending over two years here, so Kathy and I had been waiting patiently and were really excited to finally make it happen.

Temple I, known as the Temple of the Great Jaguar, in the late afternoon at Tikal Ruins.

Temple I, known as the Temple of the Great Jaguar, in the late afternoon at Tikal Ruins.

Once we got inside the park, I understood why everyone raves about it: Tikal is majestic. Supposedly only 10% of the empire has been excavated up to this point, but the park still seemed enormous and the uncovered temples, buildings, and altars were woven among an expansive jungle. They recommend that people don’t wander through the park without a guide because the risk of getting lost is extremely high. Our tour guide was Julio, a Guatemalan whose father was one of the original archaeologists of the site. He was so informative and passionate about the history of the Maya civilization, which made the tour very special. Also, the three of us girls had a great time meandering through the rainforest, taking fun photos, ascending some of the structures, and inching as close as we could get to jungle creatures. It was a perfect activity despite the heat and humidity of the jungle.

Joeana, Kathy, and I at the Maya ruins at Tikal.

Joeana, Kathy, and I at the Maya ruins at Tikal.

So a fun fact about Tikal is that several scenes from the original Star Wars movie were filmed from one of the structures overlooking the expansive vegetation dotted with random Maya temples. (But you’ll have to watch the movie yourself and look for jungle scenes to get a glimpse of Tikal! Or you could just Google it…) Another cool thing about Tikal is that we finally saw some wildlife apart from the usual chuchos and other animals from Old MacDonald’s Farm that we are used to seeing in Guatemala. Some of the animals we spotted included a toucan, a couple spider monkeys, and probably a hundred white-nosed coatis, a mammal that is related to the raccoon.

A white-nosed coati foraging the jungle floor for berries and insects.

A white-nosed coati foraging the jungle floor for berries and insects.

The day after our Tikal tour, we left Flores—Kathy and Joeana made a last-minute decision to spend a couple days in Semuc Champey and although I they encouraged me to go along with them, I stuck with my original plan to head back to Antigua. I figured it would be nice for the two of them to spend some one-on-one time together and nice for me to get a break and some much needed rest from our fun-filled adventure to recuperate and gear up for the next leg. (Plus, I had already been to Semuc Champey twice.) I actually ended up spending a week in Guatemala because I needed to do some stuff at the PC Office during that time, but Kathy and Joeana came in for exactly 22 hours during that week to run around doing errands like crazy chickens and then take off for Honduras, where I was set to meet up with them a few days later. But Honduras gets its own chapter so I will stop here for now.

On a final note, I want to say how much I appreciate the support I am receiving from friends and family during my travels. I know a lot of people expected me to come home as soon as I finished up my service, and it can be frustrating (especially for family) because I keep delaying my return. I miss my family and can’t wait to come home to see everyone. I am really looking forward to catching up with all my friends as well, but I need to finish my story first. Coming home plays a big role in motivating me to stay disciplined to write and, as I travel, I have been incorporating “writing days” into my agenda. The more I write, the sooner I come home. Pretty much all of my remaining chapters are already planned out, it is just a matter of execution.

This is my chance to do what I really love and am passionate about so thank you to all of my loved ones for understanding. I am free of all major deadlines hanging over my head right now (except my cousin’s wedding!), and I write the best without deadlines—pretty much all of you can attest to that! Plus, this is part of my processing of the last two years and preparation to return. I am not ready to come home yet, but I know I will be soon. I am going with my gut in regards to my travel pace, and I move on as I get the feeling that it is time to go. I am so grateful to have this opportunity to travel, write, and learn about the rest of the world, and I hope that you enjoy what I am able to share with you.

Survivor Guatemala in front of the Temple of the Great Jaguar at Tikal!!!

Survivor Guatemala in front of the Temple of the Great Jaguar at Tikal!!!

Love,

Alexandra

Visitors Galore, Round 1: Krista

During my Peace Corps service, I was completely spoiled with visitors from home raining down on me off and on for nearly a year. Not all of my readers are aware of this because I haven’t written anything about it yet. However, these visitors were extremely important to the third goal of the Peace Corps, which is to create a better understanding of people of other cultures on the part of Americans. (And it also meant I had great company and a little taste of home every now and then!) So although my service has ended, I believe each set of visitors deserves a tribute chapter because of the time they took and effort they made to come down to Guatemala to experience the country, food, culture, and way of life here as well as get a little taste of the Peace Corps experience.

I had a total of 7 visitors on 5 trips (due to coupled visitors) who came primarily to be with me which made for a grand total of 53 days of visitors. In the Peace Corps world, saying to another PCV “I am having a visitor” was code for “you are probably not going to hear from me or see me the entire time my visitors are here; I’ll talk to you again when they go back home.” It was understood that any of our visitors deserved our full-on attention—or as much as they wanted. It was an honor for us to get visitors and so we all strived to plan enjoyable, unforgettable adventures for our guests. (This in part was why I never immediately wrote about my visitors: while they were with me, I put my life on hold and once they left, I was so busy playing catch-up that I, again and again, set my writing to the side.)

For each visitor or set of visitors, I created an itinerary—subject to change—tailored to the interests, activity level, and budget of each person as well as the number of days they had in country and the current weather conditions of Guatemala. To be completely honest, having visitors was exhausting in many ways because we PCVs generally fill the roles of host/hostess, tour guide, translator, cook, bodyguard, money manager, and best friend all at the same time, depending on the needs, capabilities, and social confidence of each guest.

For example, I filled all those roles when my mom was here except for full-time translator because her Spanish was amazing! Mari and Russell didn’t need me to host them full-time because they were perfectly capable of managing on their own. They, as well as Krista, helped out a lot with the cooking. And my brother didn’t need a bodyguard; instead he served as MY bodyguard! And since it was Christina and Andrea’s first major trip outside of the USA, I think they really enjoyed learning the money management magic of traveling in a place where just a few dollars can go a long way.

Although hosting visitors might not have been the easiest thing to do, it was SO rewarding. First, knowing that my friends and family members were willing to put complete trust in me and come to an unknown place, possibly facing uncomfortable situations or surroundings, was both exciting and humbling. All of my visitors were open-minded enough to take public transportation (and thus get a couple chicken bus experiences of their own under their belts), try Guatemalan food, and practice their Spanish with locals. Also, at my home in my town, every single visitor I had learned to take bucket baths and washed some of their clothing on the cement washboard in my pila. I was so impressed!!!

Before I launch into Krista’s trip to Guatemala, my last general comment (for now) regarding visitors is that I will always have a special Guatemala bond with each of them since they came here and had their own Guatemalan experience and now have a different sort of understanding of this unique country and culture. I understand that a handful of more friends/family members would have loved to come down here, but for financial, professional, or personal reasons, it just didn’t work out. Life happens and sometimes it is just bad timing. I don’t count who didn’t come, but I will always remember who was here. There is not only value in the bonding experience from spending time together and having a bunch of fun adventures, but also in the fact that I had the chance to step back and see Guatemala through THEIR eyes, and relate to them as they each internalized the impression this country made on them.

After being in Guatemala for 13 months and having taken one trip home during the prior December fro a wedding and family time, I got my very first visitor in May 2012. Krista is one of my best friends from home. We first met when we were 19 while working at Macaroni Grill, the Italian restaurant, in Milpitas, CA. We only worked together for about a month and a half before Krista got a job at a bank, but we remained very close and kept up with each other while I was in college. During my senior year at St. Mary’s, Krista proposed that we take a trip to Italy together during my spring break and we actually made that happen. It is my only experience backpacking in Europe (thus far) and we had the time of our lives with only a rough plan, but we managed to make it to six different cities in only eight days.

Since we had already been travel buddies in the past, Krista and I both knew what to expect from each other and how to be flexible. She planned to be in Guatemala with me for 10 days, and I knew she could definitely keep up with an activity-filled plan; in fact, she doesn’t do too well sitting still so I knew I HAD to keep her busy!

When I got to the airport to pick her up, we were SO happy to see each other. It seemed surreal from both sides: she couldn’t believe she was actually in Guatemala and I was getting used to the idea that someone from home was actually here with me, in person, on my new turf. It was great! We had so much to say to each other and to catch up on. We headed to Antigua for that first night, shared a meal, and tried to get a good night’s rest. Travel days always take a lot out of you, but that didn’t suppress any of Krista’s excitement for being there. That night reminded me of some of our old sleepover nights when we would stay up for hours talking instead of sleeping!

Instead of sending expensive care packages, my visitors were able to deliver the goods in person. Krista brought some of the necessities with her: giant jars of peanut butter and Nutella!

Instead of sending expensive care packages, my visitors were able to deliver the goods in person. Krista brought some of the necessities with her: giant jars of peanut butter and Nutella!

The next morning, we got up early to hop on a shuttle to take us to Semuc Champey (“seh-MOOK sham-PAY”), one of the natural gems of Guatemala, where freshwater pools have naturally formed and flow from the river over cascading limestone formations in a part of Guatemala where jungle actually DOES exist at an altitude of 1,000 feet, give or take. (I hadn’t been here before and wanted to wait until I had a visitor because it is a touristy spot and can get pricey; I saved a little money each month so I had a little extra to spend when my visitors came.) We got situated in a jungle lodge in the small town of Lanquín right next to the river and fell asleep to the sounds of nature that night, mostly insects singing and buzzing away. We were awakened by nature the next morning as well: the roosters crowing before the crack of dawn made Krista sort of want to have rooster for dinner…

A view of the natural limestone formations and crystal clear pools of Semuc Champey from the lookout point just before we went down to swim in them.

A view of the natural limestone formations and crystal clear pools of Semuc Champey from the lookout point just before we went down to swim in them.

Our full day spent doing the Semuc Champey tour was excellent from start to finish. We began with a limestone cave tour where we ventured into dark water-filled caves with nothing but our bathing suits, sandals that were tied to our feet, and a large candle to light the way. There were parts of the cave expedition that required us to be completely swimming with only one arm while we held our candles with the other. It was really exciting climbing up waterfalls and jumping into “deep” pools in the cave essentially underground and only by the glow of our group’s candlelight!

Krista, in the back of the pickup truck that drove us down to Semuc Champey to start our tour.

Krista, in the back of the pickup truck that drove us down to Semuc Champey to start our tour.

The rest of the tour included a 10-minute tubing activity down the river, a couple jumps off a rope swing, and the opportunity to jump off of a very high bridge into the river below—all of which we participated in. Then we crossed over to the national park side and hiked up to the “Mirador,” the best viewing spot of the famous pools below. Our tour ended with spending an hour or so playing in the pools, riding down natural rock slides, and exploring the tunnels and caves in the various layers of the pools. It was refreshing and fun! We also made friends with a couple other people who were traveling together as well. Whereas I tended to keep some distance from short-term travelers and backpackers during my service in Guatemala, everyone who knows Krista will confirm that you can’t take her anywhere without her collecting more best friends along the way—and that is exactly what she did!

Krista and I playing around at the Semuc Champey pools with our faces painted with natural dyes from seeds.

Krista and I playing around at the Semuc Champey pools with our faces painted with natural dyes from seeds.

A couple initial observations Krista had about Guatemala included the trash system and the housing tendencies. She noticed so much garbage all over the sides of the roads and in the countryside. Also, she commented on how interesting it was how Guatemalans set up their houses. There is often no porch, yard, driveway, or even a particular design or fancy architecture; the general housing trend tends to be something like a box on the side of a hill or a road or in the middle of the jungle. It’s practical. It works for them. And I thought it was so funny when we were driving through dirt roads in jungle towns and Krista couldn’t believe that the towns were actually populated because she couldn’t see where they could live. This trip was not only Krista’s first to a truly developing nation, but also to the jungle.

After a fun-filled weekend, it was time to get off the tourist track and head back to my site, San Andrés, for some down time for Krista and some work time for me for a couple days. She loved my place and made herself right at home; she even gave my cat a new name: “Squeakers,” because her meow supposedly sounded a lot more like a squeak than a normal cat meow. And I loved having company!!! It was the first time I had had someone spend the night at my place since one of my PC friends the September before. I had someone to share every meal with for a couple days straight! It didn’t bother me at all having another person in my space—despite my space issues—because having one of my best friend’s with me for a handful of days took precedence over practically everything! Plus, Krista is a great cook so we teamed up in my kitchen and she shared ideas with me like enhancing my smoothies with various other ingredients like oatmeal to make them heartier. Over the years, Krista had always hosted me in her homes, but this was the first time I had a place and kitchen of my own to host her so it was a new, but really fun experience.

Krista felt right at home and was able to relax and nap in my hammock, with "Squeakers" also lounging in a sunny patch nearby.

Krista felt right at home and was able to relax and nap in my hammock, with “Squeakers” also lounging in a sunny patch nearby.

I had a women’s group activity and cooking class scheduled for Monday so we were off to that practically as soon as we put our stuff down the day we got back. Krista didn’t really know what to expect. I made sure I found some part of the activity that she could participate in. The lesson was on nutrition and what protein is and why it is important, then we followed it up with a Sloppy Joes made with Protemás (an inexpensive form of fortified dehydrated soy that comes in a package and serves in place of meat as a complete protein). Krista was wide-eyed the whole time, taking everything in and laughing with the ladies the whole afternoon. Afterward, she told me that she was so surprised by how outgoing and funny all the ladies in my group were, especially since they were all indigenous women. She loved how they were joking and laughing throughout the entire afternoon. And she also thought it was neat to actually see me “in action” considering the majority of people at home really had no idea what I actually did on a daily basis—or if I even did anything at all! Lol!

I put Krista to work during my protein charla, managing the "store" where my ladies were using their earned points from selected foods (higher point value for foods with higher protein content) to "buy" puzzle pieces that, when all put together, formed a human face/head.

I put Krista to work during my protein charla, managing the “store” where my ladies were using their earned points from selected foods (higher point value for foods with higher protein content) to “buy” puzzle pieces that, when all put together, formed a human face/head.

On Tuesday, I took Krista out to Pajquiej with me to do a handful of house visits to my health promoters and ended up leading her up and down hills and across the river—twice—before we finally settled in at Carmen’s house for lunch. During one house visit, we were offered some bread and juice by Isabel, one of my promoters who is indigenous and lives in a very simple home on the side of a mountain, surrounded by cornfields. Krista commented afterwards that she couldn’t believe how generous it was for Isabel to give us a simple snack and something to drink considering how little this family clearly had. To the ladies in my village, it was an honor for them that I brought Krista to meet them; to Krista, it was an honor that these women were so kind, open, and giving just upon meeting her.

Krista in Pajquiej.

Krista in Pajquiej.

That day we had lunch with Carmen and Queylan and there Krista went, making best friends again! All three of them are so outgoing that they bonded instantly. Krista also had a lot of fun using her Spanish and getting a recipe for the Guatemalan dish that we ate for lunch, salpicón de res, from Carmen so she could make it for her family once she got back home. Krista was completely in her element! When we got back home that afternoon, we took it easy. Then, on Wednesday, I didn’t have anything planned so we could relax a little bit and take care of some household chores and laundry during the day. Later that evening we headed over to Tayra’s house to cook dinner together, play some games, and chat. It was really a typical week for me as well as a perfect snapshot of my social life at that time as well. Krista got to meet everyone who played a part in my daily life and loved them all.

Krista and Rubidia passing out "Sloppy Joes" at the end of our cooking class.

Krista and Rubidia passing out “Sloppy Joes” at the end of our cooking class.

Thursday was our last full day in my site so we went back out to Pajquiej for a health promoter training I was giving. It was our first review session for the course so it ended up taking extra time, but it was a little different from the other group so cool for Krista to be a part of. We walked home just as the sun was going down, feeling satisfied with the workweek, then prepped for the last leg of the trip that night. It was really a privilege to have so much time with Krista. There is nothing like being with someone in person to get back on the same page. She is like a sister to me and when we bicker like sisters do, we both know it is out of love (most of the time! Haha!). It was neat to listen to her thoughts about where she was in her life, about to make a big career change and free herself from everything holding her back, ready to let God lead her into the risky unknown. She was in a really good place mentally and emotionally, ready to take an a fresh start, and I felt so lucky to be able to share that with her for real, despite how much of “stuff from home” I wasn’t a part of during that time.

Krista at her finest during a hike to see the "Cross on the Hill" in Antigua.

Krista at her finest during a hike to see the “Cross on the Hill” in Antigua.

For the last leg of our trip, Krista and I headed to Lake Atitlán with the plan to meet up with our friends who we met the weekend before at Semuc Champey and hike a volcano, but unfortunately, we got rained out of that as the beginning of wet season moved in right at the end of May. Instead, we were left swinging lazily on hammocks at a PCV-favorite hostel, Iguana Perdida, in Santa Cruz la Laguna and sipping hot chocolate while watching movies in a cozy little den with a view of the lake. We did manage to get in a little hike to another lakeside town where we sat in an infinity pool and hot tub, sipping beverages and chatting while enjoying the view of the lake yet again. Not too shabby for a back-up plan!

Krista swinging in a hammock at Iguana Perdida. She makes a great pea-in-a-pod, right?

Krista swinging in a hammock at Iguana Perdida. She makes a great pea-in-a-pod, right?

After the lake weekend, we spent one final day in back in Antigua the day before Krista’s flight out in order to do her final souvenir shopping, hike up to the cross on the hill, and have one last meal with our new friends. It was a really nice way to end her visit out here, and she went home completely refreshed and eager to start the next chapter of her life.

Me, our new travel friend Camila, and Krista eating dessert crepes at Luna de Miel, a specialty crepe restaurant in Antigua owned by a couple of French guys. Delicious!

Me, our new travel friend Camila, and Krista eating dessert crepes at Luna de Miel, a specialty crepe restaurant in Antigua owned by a couple of French guys. Delicious!

Little did Krista know at the time, but her decision to leave her job after more than six years to take a new, exciting position as a tour manager for Columbia sportswear would lead her straight to the man of her dreams and future husband. Chase proposed to Krista this past March and they are both currently living and working in Portland, OR. They are planning their wedding for spring 2014 and both extremely happy. I’m pretty sure they haven’t yet come done from Cloud 9, and I don’t know that they ever will… I’m looking forward to meeting this guy who stole my best friend’s heart upon my return home from my travels. ;)

Krista and I on the porch of Iguana Perdida with Lago de Atitlan and the lake volcanoes in the background.

Krista and I on the porch of Iguana Perdida with Lago de Atitlan and the lake volcanoes in the background.

Love,

Alexandra

Winding Down Work, Leaving Site, & COS

By the end of January, I was antsy to get things going again so I talked to my groups and started to narrow down what work I would try to fit in during the last stretch of my service. I decided to veer away from the Healthy Homes project framework and do more work along the lines of what people in my community were interested in as opposed to what a piece of paper suggested I do. After all, any project framework should serve simply as a guideline; anyone seriously expecting to have a plan set in stone AND thinking they would see perfect results would probably be laughed at anyone who has any experience living in the Land of Eternal Unpredictability. Let me explain…

The entire two years of my Peace Corps service has been a repeating cycle of constant change. The original Healthy Homes project framework I was given left me under the impression that I would be training people to become health promoters in their communities during the first year; these health promoters would then train other people/families in their communities with healthy habits AND they would select the neediest families in the communities to participate in trainings and receive infrastructure projects (cement floors, improved stoves, or latrines) by the end of the second year. First of all, I didn’t even know what a health promoter was or how to train one; secondly, once I had gotten to know the majority of families in Pajquiej, the idea of carrying out infrastructure projects in my tiny village seemed to pose more of a threat to the well-being of the community as a whole than any sort of sustainable solution.

Additional roadblocks to sticking to framework included all the changes that occurred both within Peace Corps Guatemala and the health center in my town, San Andrés Sajcabajá. Starting with the threat that PC Guatemala had of being shut down in January 2012, everything shifted. PCVs were removed from their sites and placed in new ones, our transportation system and volunteer whereabouts policies were tightened, and the PC administration was in an uproar. Not only did PC Guatemala experience the deaths of three staff members (the Healthy Schools director, a Language and Cultural Facilitator, and a PC Medical Officer) all in the first half of the 2012, but my boss, Basilio, the director of the Healthy Homes project, retired in June 2012 after serving a record 37 years with PC Guatemala. A month after that, Pablo, Basilio’s right-hand man and the Healthy Homes program manager, was let go, along with several other staff members, by the PC as they tried to bring in new ideas and restructure the purpose of PCV presence in Guatemala.

On that note, the decision was made to phase out the Healthy Homes program. (This is normal; all programs are restructured and evolve into something a little different every handful of years.) Healthy Homes is being turned into Maternal & Child Health instead, and last summer, a Program Manager and Programming & Training Specialist were selected to head up the new program. In addition to that change, we were notified that SPA (small project assistance) funds had been cut from 70% of infrastructure project costs for floors, stoves, and latrines down to a maximum of 40% coverage—for ONLY improved stoves, removing any assistance for either floors or latrines. Just a few months ago, our new Programming & Training Specialist shared news with us that he abruptly needed to resign from the position and return to the United States to manage a family emergency. To top if off, last December, our Country Director finished her 5-year term in Guatemala and was replaced by George Like, our new CD who is wonderful and very involved with PCVs, in January.

In the face of all the changing positions, programs, and policies, upon his retirement right in the middle of my service, Basilio recommended that we focus on our communities and not worry about the whirlwind around us. Figuring he knew a thing or two, I decided to do exactly that. My site, the women, the kids, my friends, and my work served as my anchor. Being in a relatively isolated rural town made is easy for me to detach quite a bit from the Peace Corps world so when new rules were created and when our project framework was remodeled, I really only paid attention to anything that could be applied in my community or that would improve the functionality of my groups or effectiveness of my workshops. By sticking to my community, working in accordance to their needs and interests, and blocking out the rest of the “noise,” I was able to maintain a steady rhythm throughout my service. Among all cycles of change, there will always be some constant to hang on to.

Hanging out with these little ones and doing dental hygiene activities was one way I stayed connected to my village.

Hanging out with these little ones and doing dental hygiene activities was one way I stayed connected to my village.

My primary project was based on Health Promoters and infrastructure projects. After the Health Promoter graduation ceremony in October, the momentum of that group came to a halt. I felt that I could not provide the group with a sense of direction or purpose beyond demonstrating that they could each effectively teach what they had learned during the course to other community members, thus stepping into a leadership role. They all did that at the graduation. And then we were stuck.

I felt very little support from either the doctor at the health center (who had been fired based on an allegation that he stole a piece of equipment, refused to leave, fought the lawsuit, and ultimately got reinstated 6 months later, but during that entire period hardly said two words to me) or my counterpart, Rosa (who had been in the habit of accompanying my site mate to the village HE had been working in, and when he was medically separated last October, she took on other things), and we weren’t doing infrastructure projects, so I hit a wall. While I was going from house to house of my promoters to administer a one-on-one oral final exam, half of the women in the group told me they didn’t want to continue. On the brink of admitting failure, I kept thinking, “What do I do? What can I do?” I’m pretty sure I cried…

At first I tried to convince the group of seven women who all lived close to each other that they should continue for the health benefits for their families. These women are all indigenous and two or three do not speak or understand much Spanish. Also, it is sometimes difficult to break into the circle of trust with the indigenous population, who generally tend to stick to the family, tradition, and group mentality. It’s all or nothing: if one of the seven didn’t want to participate then NONE of the seven participated. There were one or two progressive-minded women in that group, but it wasn’t enough to sway.

After a few attempts to convince them all to stick with the big group, I learned that some of them thought that by attending the health promoter trainings, they were earning themselves a new stove. We had talked about the possibility of doing stove projects sometime along the way, but I had never promised anything, and I always reminded them that the purpose of the trainings was ultimately for education. (Another rumor was created that I was going to give everyone irons, like to iron clothing!) Once I figured out that many of those ladies would only participate if there were some FREE item for them at the end, I stopped trying to coerce them. I always informed them of activities, making it clear that it didn’t bother me if they came or not because I was only interested in working with people who were interested in learning. And that is how I conducted the remainder of my service: when I didn’t know what to do, I went to where there was interest.

These are some of the people who stuck with me and kept coming. High participation and enthusiasm, and a willingness to learn. I grew very close to these families.

These are some of the people who stuck with me and kept coming. High participation and enthusiasm, and a willingness to learn. I grew very close to these families.

Because many people at home were also under the impression that I was going to be building things (because that is what my volunteer project assignment pamphlet described), I will comment on why I decided not to do infrastructure projects in Pajquiej. In addition to the minor problem of project funding getting cut, I was facing a couple major problems in regards to creating sustainability, working in a tiny village (only 150 people!), and combatting the expectation that Americans only come to developing nations to give free hand-outs to “poor” people. The issue of money became so miniscule compared to the challenge of breaking through stereotypes, dealing with some people who felt entitled to anything I owned, and trying to teach people the value of education and self-sufficiency all while trying to create relationships that “promoted peace and friendship between Guatemala and the USA,” the ultimate purpose of a Peace Corps service.

The idea of implementing projects in such a small town ended up posing more threats to the well being of community than promises of improved health for families. When we started talking about who NEEDED the assistance the most, a couple names came up and the response was, “Why should she get a stove when she hasn’t come to a single health promoter training?” Some health promoters were associating stoves as a reward for attendance as opposed to the filling of a need. Also, I discovered upon gaining confianza, or trust, with many families in the community that they had kept information from me during my initial house visits (for example, one family who supposedly cooked on an open fire actually has a gas stove and propane tank hidden in the kitchen that they left locked the first time I was there). The amount of bickering over entitlement to stove projects that came from just the idea of the possibility of doing them showed me that it would cause more harm than good and ultimately deterred me from going down that road.

The challenges of development work have turned me into an even stronger advocate for education than I was before. Contrary to the outcomes of American patronizing citizens of underdeveloped nations in the form of gift-giving, which creates a system of dependency and expectation on countries that have access to a wider variety of resources, education gives the gifts of “think for yourself,” “do it yourself,” and “respect yourself and value your voice.” In turn, people begin to solve their own problems or learn how to avoid greater, more society-paralyzing issues.

In my opinion, this is the key to sustainability. Development will never happen if other people keep coming in and doing the work. When you give people responsibilities and the tools to see them through, I believe most will rise to the challenge, figure out a way to complete the task at hand, and then take pride in what they have accomplished. It’s like when a kid is learning how to ride a bicycle: you can give him the training wheels and show him how it is done, even hang onto the bike, but it is not until he believes that he really can do it on his own, you let go of the bike, and let him try on his own that he gains the pride in his accomplishment and the confidence to keep going and even try something new.

Despite the repeated failures I now have tucked nicely under my belt, I feel satisfied with the handful of successes I have experienced in my time here. My pattern seemed to go a lot like this: failure…failure…failure…SUCCESS!!!! And repeat. And that is the nature of development work and what each PCV experiences during our service abroad. Failing over and over again has actually seemed to demolish the fears we all had of failing before and it conditions us to thinking outside the box, coming up with new, creative solutions to overcome whatever obstacle is placed in our paths. Giving up and backing down are two concepts that the majority of PCVs tend not to embody. We learn patience, flexibility, and enthusiasm, in addition to a whole lot more. PCVs are their own breed (but I will dedicate more time to that topic later…).

In regards to health promoter work, I didn’t do much more with my health promoters in Pajquiej. We were planning a few more follow-up activities, and successfully had a basic CPR course administered to the health promoters by the town firefighters. The health promoters in Pajquiej also each received a special Ministry of Health identification card, which serves as proof that they each completed the trainings and passed the course. This spring, two of my women from the Mujeres de Vida Saludable group in town requested that I put them through the health promoter trainings as well so I led that course making it clear that the benefits were completely educationally based. Unfortunately, I was not able to complete that course and have a graduation ceremony with them because I permanently left my site with the last training, the final exam, and the fiesta still to go. (More on that later.)

Sandra practicing CPR on me, with the guidance of the head firefighter.

Sandra practicing CPR on me, with the guidance of the head firefighter.

As secondary projects in my site, I found/created work in accordance to what people around town asked from me. One particular example is a kids’ group I help at my house once a week. Originally, the mom of these two girls came to me and requested that I teach her daughters English because they were both born in the United States and had dual citizenship; she hoped one day they could return. I agreed and we started with basics—colors, numbers, introductions, greetings, etc. However, since one of the girls did not focus at all and turned into a little Tasmanian devil roaring through house every time she walked in, I decided to veer away from formal English lessons, invite more kids, and design some hands-on, kid-friendly activities with short lessons related to science, culture, hygiene, etc. Some of the activities we did included coloring Easter eggs, learning about plants and then planting seeds, and learning about worms and composting followed by preparing a “worms-in-dirt” snack.

My kids group, right after going on an Easter Egg hunt to find their colored and decorated eggs.

My kids group, right after going on an Easter Egg hunt to find their colored and decorated eggs.

Another project I tackled was the implementation of two 11-week nutrition courses with cooking classes designed in order to combat the high rate of chronic malnutrition in Guatemala. In addition to covering the importance of a balanced diet, the purpose of different foods, and in which foods different nutrients can be found, the course offered hands-on practice with new recipes that can be made out of inexpensive, but nutrient-dense foods. I ran one of the courses in Pajquiej with a group of 7 women and 1 man. Each week a different person “lent” their home and kitchen for the lesson and cooking class. I brought the recipes, taught the lessons, created participatory activities in order for them to review the information at the end of each lesson, and then divided up ingredients that each person signed up to bring the following week. The group collaboration was impressive and our once-a-week class was a fun was for the women in my village to get together, learn something new, and socialize. On the days I went out to Pajquiej, I often wouldn’t get back home until the sun was down.

My ladies in Pajquiej, working together to prepare one of our cooking class recipes.

My ladies in Pajquiej, working together to prepare one of our cooking class recipes.

My ladies in Pajquiej learning how to bake banana bread. The recipe I shared is from my step mom.

My ladies in Pajquiej learning how to bake banana bread. The recipe I shared is from my step mom.

As a follow-up activity once the nutrition course came to a close, I solicited the help of a fellow PCV, Eric, who works in Agriculture and whose site was just half an hour away, to carry out a community tire garden demonstration. We did the activity at the primary school so all the kids could participate as well as several women and the village president from the community. It turned out great! I had the used tires stored for over a year in the school in Pajquiej so it was nice to finally use them. At the end of the workshop, I passed out seeds to all the participating families that included cilantro, celery, onions, spinach, radishes, beets, leeks, squash, and tomatoes; they were all very excited about starting their own gardens at home in tires. That was the last activity I ended up doing with the Pajquiej community.

Eric and I with the school kids in Pajquiej, standing around our completed tire garden.

Eric and I with the school kids in Pajquiej, standing around our completed tire garden.

Sandra, cutting out the middle of a tire, getting ready to flip the tire inside out to create more space.

Sandra, cutting out the middle of a tire, getting ready to flip the tire inside out to create more space.

The second nutrition course was in my town (not village), and I held classes at my own house. The group consisted of 5-8 girls between the ages of 18 and 21; most of these girls don’t have their own house or kitchen yet so we used mine, but they all split ingredients just like the other group. The majority of these girls attend Magisterio, where they are being trained to become teachers so it was a fantastic group to work with because they were engaged, participated, and had lots of questions. Also, two of the 18-year-olds, who happen to be cousins and whose families are from Pajquiej, my village, each have a child already. I was happy that I could be a resource for them to learn how to properly nourish their baby girls while they are still young. I got really close with this group. They look to me as if I were their big sister. We talked about boys, love, popular music, careers, the importance of studying, and even more, the importance of protecting their hearts and their bodies because they have rights to do so. I really love my girls from that group, and I am thankful that I had the chance to get to know them so well. They are the hope for the future of San Andrés.

Manuela, Angela, Angee, and Juanita cooking banana Incaparina pancakes in my kitchen. Beautiful girls!!!

Manuela, Angela, Angee, and Juanita cooking banana Incaparina pancakes in my kitchen. Beautiful girls!!!

Maria Jose, Angee with her baby girl, Alexandra, Cherle, and Juanita. Majo, Angee, and Juanita were the go-getters in the group and encouraged me to get into Magisterio to teach workshops.

Maria Jose, Angee with her baby girl, Alexandra, Cherle, and Juanita. Majo, Angee, and Juanita were the go-getters in the group and encouraged me to get into Magisterio to teach workshops.

That brings me to the work that I was the most passionate about: Magisterio workshops. From the work I did last year, and the pleading from the girls in my nutrition course to teach the boys the proper way to treat women, I had the motivation and access to run more workshops this year. A lot of my motivation came from witnessing machismo on a daily basis. It is interesting: in this country, women are not given any power, but they are expected to take on almost every other responsibility and they ALWAYS get the blame. A man hits his wife? Well, it is her fault she made him mad. A married man sleeps with another woman? Well, it’s either the wife’s fault for not pleasing her husband or the other woman’s fault for seducing the married man. A man has a psychological problem and is unsuitable for society? Well, he must have gotten that from his mother. The list goes on in every aspect. Men get away with whatever they want, and the women get tagged with the bad reputations and the negative, often lifelong, consequences.

The couple who rented a room in the same house where I rented were a prime example of how machismo still infiltrates every crack and crevice of Guatemalan society, so I studied it every single day for a year and a half. The ONE time, last March, we butted heads when he tried to tell me how to live so that my social life wouldn’t interfere with his daily routine, I stood my ground and told him I have every right to 1) have my nutrition course and kids group over once a week (usually while the couple was working), because I had gotten permission from the landlord prior to starting my activities; 2) talk on the phone; 3) talk on the phone in ENGLISH, and 4) laugh when I wanted to, because I am human (these were all the things he complained about). I don’t think he was used to woman not obeying him. Unfortunately the situation escalated before it calmed down, but I quickly realized that HE was never going to change his macho ways.

In addition to that big personal run-in with machismo, I saw other examples regularly and was affected by it. Some women in Pajquiej were not allowed to attend my nutrition course because their husbands didn’t want them to leave the house, even I was the one walking an hour to their village and each lady was only 5 or 10 minutes from her house at any given time. Instead of fighting with these men, I decided the only thing I could do was to combat it with education, and I had the perfect age group and audience waiting for me at the institute for teachers in training. I also had the director of the school on my side, begging me to get in with the students who were separated into 10 sections that totaled about 300.

So I designed a 3-workshop series that I was going to give to each section. The first one was all about sexual stereotypes, gender roles, and equality between the sexes. I facilitated group activities in which the students shared their ideas of their own gender and of the opposite gender; the stereotypes revealed themselves so we talked about how to overcome those misconceptions. Without explaining the entire activity here, the wrapping up point was that by saying “Women: YOU can DO it!!!” is not enough to overcome machismo in this country. Without the support of men in this country, women don’t stand a chance. We concluded the workshop by encouraging both the boys and girls to recognize the differences between the genders, but appreciate the talents or unique way of thinking that every individual has—both male and female—and find a way to put those differences and strengths together, working as a team, to create something much greater than either gender could achieve on its own. They seemed to appreciate that perspective, and although I may not  ever personally see the result, at least I can hope that a healthy seed was planted there and that with time, it will grow.

Girls in Magisterio presenting their group work on their ideas of what a man is.

Girls in Magisterio presenting their group work on their ideas of what a man is.

The second round of workshops that I facilitated with Magisterio students was about the changes that occur from childhood to adolescence, sexual development and human sexuality, and sexual decision-making and the responsibilities that come along with those decisions. These students were so engaged in this topic, which is usually taboo in this society. I asked them if they learned anything at home from their parents and the general response was that parents don’t want to talk about sex with their kids because they believe that if their kids don’t know about it, then they won’t engage in it. My position is that if you don’t give young people the awareness, knowledge, and tools necessary to protect themselves, then you will end up with teenage pregnancies and rampant spread of STIs. Oh, have I mentioned that there are four active cases of HIV in San Andrés?

It was interesting teaching sexual education to big groups of teenagers and young adults in my isolated, rural town because probably at least 20% of the students in each section were already married with children. I had to choose my words carefully and take both married and unmarried students into consideration. You can’t advise married people to practice abstinence, that’s for sure. But for all of the classes, I took a very objective approach. Together, we created a pros and cons list of sex, stressing that any thing that produces a great reward usually is associated with great risks. We discussed that sexuality is a natural thing, but that everyone develops at his or her own pace. Also, we talked about all the responsibilities that are associated with a sexual lifestyle and why it is important to wait until you are ready to manage those responsibilities (i.e. children), usually after you finish studying, get married, etc.

Boys in Magisterio presenting their group work on what it means to be a woman.

Boys in Magisterio presenting their group work on what it means to be a woman.

I found that when I treated these kids like adults and showed them that I expected them to be mature enough to behave, they usually were very respectful. I did walk out of one class where one boy was intoxicated and distracting everyone, 3 others were asking me for my phone number every 2 minutes, and the girls asked me if we were done yet. So I packed up and left, telling them that if they weren’t interested in the information I had to share, then I wasn’t going to waste my time. They felt really bad, apologizing to the director and asking for him to invite me back to their section. Each classroom dynamic was different, creating a challenge for me in regards to how each workshop played out, but I loved every second of being with those students. They were the ones watching me the most, and I hope that in some small way I was able to empower them, men and women alike.

In the last couple of months, my social life skyrocketed in site. I was hardly ever alone and had to fight to keep my eyes open at night. I finally felt a level of community integration that I did not feel before. I had to turn down hanging out with people because I already had prior commitments. Of course, this is how it always is toward the end of service: just when you get really close to people and find your niche in the community, it’s time to leave…

On that note, I believe that it is time to mention an unfortunate circumstance regarding how I left my site. At the beginning of May, a friend of mine, a married man who was like a brother to me and whose wife was one of my closest girlfriends, made an aggressive move toward me at a point when I had my guard down. I wasn’t sure how to handle the situation but with the guidance of two wonderful friends, I decided to report the incident to the Peace Corps. Before I left site to go to the office, the guy made another move that clearly indicated he had intentions to continue to target me: he moved a bunch of his things out of the house where his wife and kids were living and moved them into one of the unoccupied rooms in the house where I was living. Kathy, my best friend in PC, was at my house at the time; she detected the danger and encouraged me to get out of there as soon as possible.

Once I reported the incident to one of the PC Medical Officers, Johanna, she told me that she would have to tell the Safety & Security Coordinator, Miguel, and our Country Director, George Like. She also warned me that there was a chance I wouldn’t be able to go back to my site. This all happened during my group’s COS (close of service) Conference in mid-May. Everything was chaotic at the time, but those three staff members worked closely with me to make a plan. I was offered a medical evacuation, a medical separation, or the option to take an “interrupted service” so I could just finish up my service immediately and go home. But I was adamant about two things only: I needed to finish my work IN SITE since I was so close to wrapping everything up and I really wanted to COS with my best friend, Kathy, because that is what we have been planning for months now so we could travel together for a couple weeks after service.

Peace Corps worked with me. Johanna, Miguel, George, and I sat down together and hatched out a plan for me to go back to site. I knew exactly what I needed to get done, and they asked me to do it in a much shorter time frame, requesting that I make my last day in site June 14th. Instead of making me leave immediately after that, they gave me permission to move in with Kathy at her site for the remaining few weeks of service. Kathy and I were originally planning to set our COS date for July 8th; however, I also had to compromise on that so that I wasn’t “lingering around” out of site for so long. The COS date the Country Director and I agreed upon was July 2nd. (That’s today!)

Kathy and I at Siete Altares, on the Caribbean coast of Guatemala, in January.

Kathy and I at Siete Altares, on the Caribbean coast of Guatemala, in January.

Then, with my safety being regarded as top priority, we created an 11-day work plan. The conditions set for this plan were that I would have to be accompanied at all times by one to two PC staff members and that I would not be allowed to stay overnight at my house anymore. If I reported the incident or told anyone in my site what happened, I could essentially kiss goodbye to the rest of my time and activities there because PC would have to pull me out, and lastly, if the guy directly contacted me in any form, I was required to inform Security, which would result in a reassessment of the situation.

With that, my PC team and I geared up for the first round, four very full days of nutrition courses, activities in Pajquiej, and workshops in Magisterio. Ariel (from Security) and Doris (Programming and Volunteer Support) were the two staff members who accompanied me that week; all PC employees are trained not to ask questions/dig for information, but simply to support/protect the Volunteer. That was probably the hardest overall week that I had during my service. The people who knew what was going on with me were shocked that I wanted to go back to my site, but I refused to be pushed out; I hadn’t finished my work. And amidst all the crazy emotions I was experiencing, my work ended up being the only thing that was keeping me together. I jam-packed every day from 8 in the morning until after dark with activities, trying to get as much done as possible; Ariel and Doris kept up with me at every step. When I was with my people, I was on. I am a performer—that is what I do. But when each day/show was over, I fell apart and collapsed into the arms of Mama Doris, who just held me and let me cry.

People in my town saw my PC “chaperones” and the PC vehicle, noted how unusual it was, and started raising a lot of questions and speculation. During that first week, I accomplished a ton and even began to sell some of my stuff to people who had laid claim to it awhile back. (The inheritance requests actually started about a year and a half ago…) Everything was going as planned. I spent the weekend at Kathy’s house in Cajolá, about four to five hours from my site, then prepared for the upcoming week, during which we were going to knock out two more work days in our 11-day plan.

On Monday, May 27th, Ariel drove me into my site and I had a quick meeting with some of my Health Promoters. Doris was an hour or two behind us and was going to meet up with us to help me out with a “Responsible Sexuality” workshop I was doing in Magisterio that afternoon. Just as I finished my meeting, the guy who wasn’t supposed to contact me called me. I didn’t answer so he texted me a few minutes later. The tone of his text message to me was a warning for me to shut up and stay away from his family. I believe that he got scared because of how PC was protecting me and how his name was floating around as the cause of all of it so he contacted me trying to manipulate the situation in order to avoid accountability for his actions. I showed Ariel the message and he told me, “Cancel your plans for the afternoon. Let’s go to your house and get as much out as possible, then we’ll go back to Santa Cruz del Quiché (the department capital) for the night and reassess the situation.”

The next couple of hours were awful and I really don’t feel like recalling them here. I was a wreck. What I didn’t know at the time was that that was going to be my very last day in site. I didn’t get to say goodbye to anyone. I basically feel like I was ripped out my site—my home for two years, my safe place. I was not mad at Peace Corps at all; I knew my safety was priority. However, I was furious with this guy. This was the second time he had stripped me of the power I have to make decisions in my own life. That is two times too many. And that time, he won because his actions led to my removal—and distance from his family, just what he wanted. But, I’m telling you, he messed with the wrong woman. He hasn’t seen the last of me.

I missed a lot in the remaining six days I was going to be in San Andrés. I missed the final celebration I was going to have with my girls in my nutrition course—which is when, I found out later, they had planned to throw me a going away party. I didn’t get to graduate the two health promoters I was training. I didn’t get to finish the last round of sexual education workshops I had planned in Magisterio, and I didn’t get to say goodbye to my people in my town, or more importantly, the entire village of Pajquiej, the families of which I had really become a part of. It really sucked. The way I see it, though, is that a lot of other people missed out as well; this guy’s actions didn’t just affect me. He robbed people of education, diplomas, training certifications, time, and goodbyes with me. All of that was taken away from them without explanation.

This was the last time I met with my girls in the nutrition course. We made Sloppy Joes that day. It was the week before our planned final celebration.

This was the last time I met with my girls in the nutrition course. We made Sloppy Joes that day. It was the week before our planned final celebration.

At that point, as Johanna described it to me, my “world had been turned upside down” and I was “trying to learn how to walk on my head.” All I wanted was stability again, but there was so much left up in the air. We took one day at a time, Peace Corps provided counseling to me so I was getting regular calls from Washington, and little by little, we reformed plans. Since the original report, Peace Corps has been with walking by my side, helping me along, every step of the way. I am so grateful for the guidance, patience, and support I have gotten from the Peace Corps from every angle. There is a silver lining to this big, dark cloud where George Like, the CD, and I came to a compromise in regards to how I could have a proper goodbye with some of my loved ones, but I will save the details for the next chapter. The bottom line is that I didn’t want to leave on a bad note, which is why I didn’t go home right away. I refused to have the last taste in my mouth of Guatemala to be negative when there have been so many beautiful and rewarding parts of my service. There are good people here. I will not let my service or even the end of my service be defined by one bad thing.

My kiddos, Yaser, Chabela (that is a nickname for Isabel), and Jonathan, playing inside the cut and flipped tires.

My kiddos, Yaser, Chabela (that is a nickname for Isabel), and Jonathan, playing inside the cut and flipped tires.

Fortunately, I was able to slip back into the USA for four days at the beginning of June. I had requested special permission to take “leave without allowance” several months prior because one of my best friends and “twin,” Bethany, was due to walk down the aisle June 1st. It was such a quick trip that I didn’t even turn on my phone or really tell anyone. In addition to Bethany and Gordon’s beautiful wedding that was worth every penny I paid for the plane ticket, I was able to spend some quality time with a couple family members and loved ones. I had the chance to tell some of them in person what had happened and what I would be dealing with in the near future. That short time was very important because I knew I would be in need of their support in the upcoming months.

Bethany & Gordon, right after officially becoming husband and wife!

Bethany & Gordon, right after officially becoming husband and wife!

Being home and back in the United States just for a few days got me excited to come home for good because women actually have rights to use their voices, and I am so tired of my voice not being heard in a society where women—especially in the rural communities—are often viewed only as possessions, baby makers, and sex objects. I finally found my voice, got comfortable with it, and can’t wait to really use it! But I am not quite done here yet…

Shortly after my trip, Peace Corps changed my phone number (but I kept the same phone so I wouldn’t lose contacts). And then last week, they told me they needed my actual cell phone so my number was changed again. And again. I think I am on my fourth phone number in just a few weeks. It’s a long story, but this afternoon, I might even get a fifth number. That might be a record. It’s funny because in the United States, I still have the same phone number I had when I got my first cell phone at 18. The account is currently suspended, but I will pick it right back up as soon as I get home. It is incredible how easy it can be to have stability in the United States, but in Guatemala, the rate of change and regular occurrence of unpredicted mishaps and tragedies makes stability the one big thing that many people pray for.

During our COS conference in mid-May, Miguel did a security session reporting that the majority of major incidents—robberies, assaults, rapes—that PCVs are victims of usually occur during the last 2 months of a volunteer’s service, and the attacker/aggressor is usually someone who knows the PCV and their schedule or habits well. He said that the aggressors make a move because they assume that since the PCV is so close to the end of service, he or she will be less likely report the incident or might not have the power or urge to deal with the incident, especially considering the risk that any major security incident usually results in removal of the PCV from site as soon as it is reported. Miguel told us to be wary and keep our guards up; unfortunately, the advice came about two weeks too late for me.

It is such a bummer how everything happened in regards to my last days in site. I was talking with another former PCV, Anna, who is still living and working in Guatemala post-service about my situation and how it roots from machismo because she was going through a machismo-driven situation of her own. I told her that I had been so proud that I had survived 25 whole months as a single woman alone in my rural town in Guatemala without having anything bad happen to me. I had a clean record and a reputation around town for being upright and not causing problems so maybe I got a little ahead of myself thinking that I would get out of this country completely unscathed because I had already made it so far. She told me that it is sad that I was so excited about successfully maintaining my rights and not being messed with—against all odds—because that goes to show how behind this country is: rights, dignity, and decision-making should be a given.

Last week, we got a new group of trainees starting their PST and two year service here. I met a couple of them. They’re great. Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. Just like we all were a couple years ago. I couldn’t help feeling sad for the loss of innocence that occurred in all of us and will happen to all of them, too. I pessimistically thought, “I wonder what terrible things will change those people’s lives and perspectives.” No one will leave untouched. Guatemala can really screw people up. It’s like a true survivor game. Anyone who can survive Peace Corps Guatemala can take on anything…and they will be fearless. I have said over and over again, “I would never do it again, but it is the best decision I have ever made in my life.” And I wouldn’t trade any of it in because I have learned my hardest lessons, far from the safety and cushioned landing pad of the relatively sheltered and comfortable lifestyle I was living before I came to Guatemala. My eyes are wide open for real now.

So for the last week or so, I have been preparing for my COS. I moved out of Kathy’s place and had the opportunity to sell a lot of the useful stuff I had to some of the newer PCVs (who just moved to their site in April) at very affordable prices, around half or less of what I had paid. I made a little fortune, nonetheless. At the office, I finished up my COS meds and got medically cleared: no tuberculosis, no unfriendly parasites taking up room and board in my intestines, and I only gained a total of 4 lbs. in two years; everything is good to go. I closed my bank account and received cash in lieu of my plane ticket home (because I am not flying home right away). I had my Spanish Language Proficiency Interview and am finishing service at the level of “Advanced High.” Satisfaction.

The only thing I really have left to do is turn in three reports. It feels like finals week in college, and true to form, I got all the little details out of the way and I am saving the big writing projects for last. Even worse: I am writing and posting a blog chapter before my reports are finished!! At least I already finished my DOS (description of service) Report—that is the important one. I just have the COS Termination Report, which is about my site, and then a short report in Spanish.

Kathy and I will spend today finishing those up, then at 2:30 this afternoon, we will give short presentations about our service to PC staff members at the office, then “ring the bell,” which will officially mark the completion and closure of our Peace Corps service. Kathy and I came in together (not knowing each other at all), circumstance led to a natural friendship and one of the best relationships I have ever been a part of, now we consider each other partners-in-crime and have experienced and grown so much with the other at our side, and so we will go out together.

Kathy and I in Santiago Atitlán, a lakeside town on Lago de Atitlán, during Holy Week in March.

Kathy and I in Santiago Atitlán, a lakeside town on Lago de Atitlán, during Holy Week in March.

Fulfilling our big ideas to travel together after service, Kathy and I are leaving for Mexico on Thursday and will be there for exactly one week. Upon our return to Guatemala, Kathy’s friend, Joeanna, is flying in and will meet up with us to go see the famous Maya ruins in Guatemala at Tikal. A few days later, another PCV from our group who is COSing, Jenny, is going to meet up with us. Those 3 girls will head to El Salvador for a couple days while I am taking care of some stuff at the PC Office, then I will meet up with them at Copán, Honduras (another famous Maya ruins site). From there, we are going out to the Caribbean coast of Honduras to get scuba certified. One by one, Joeanna, Jenny, and Kathy will each peel off and return to Guatemala either to fly home or, in Kathy’s case, to start a new job. (She picked up a job at an international NGO in Xela that starts August 1st.) Before Kathy heads back up, we might have the chance to spend a couple days in Nicaragua.

I decided that just because everyone else has a deadline to tend to, it doesn’t mean that I have to stop traveling. The original plan was to take advantage of being down here speaking the language to see all of Central America. So that is what I am going to do. I haven’t quite figured out the route I will take, but the most recent idea is to take a hopper flight from Honduras (or Nicaragua) down to Panama and work my way back up to Guatemala, passing through Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and El Salvador along the way. It will be tricky because Peace Corps will need me back in the office probably sometime in August, but that date is still pending and we probably won’t know until the middle to end of July.

Even though I am serving my final day as a Peace Corps Volunteer today, my story has not yet concluded. I still have some very important blog chapters to post that are already in the works, and I recently decided that I am not going to come home until I am done writing. My big priority upon starting my PC service was my writing. I wanted to document this time, and between my blog chapters and personal journals, I have succeeded. But if I go home before I am done, I know I will never finish this writing project because I will get sucked backed into the fast-paced American lifestyle. I am looking forward to feeling productive again, but not until I complete my project.

Traveling solo will give me a great opportunity to focus on my writing, and also to re-center myself and find that place of inner peace again before taking on “readjustment.” (And please don’t fear too much for me because there are always short-term travellers to meet up with along the way, for group safety purposes, especially during summertime; I will find them.) The best part about all of this is that I have no deadline, and I know this will probably be one of the few times in my life when I won’t have a pressing responsibility calling me home. I suspect that I might reappear in California sometime around mid- to late August, but there is nothing set in stone. For now, I am free as a bird, but I will fly home when the timing is right.

So in just a few hours, I will become an RPCV, a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer, having fulfilled my commitment to serve for over two years in Guatemala. I did it. And I’m not going to lie: I’m really proud of myself. And I love the person I have become. I am looking forward to what lies ahead and how I can take what I have learned and use it in positive, productive ways. Despite how obvious it is that the Peace Corps Experience is an individual journey, I really couldn’t have done it without all the support I received along the way. The people I met, got close to, spent time with, or even just had phone call/e-mail/letter exchanges with have all enhanced my journey in some form. No one and none of that will be forgotten. Thank you.

Love,

Alexandra

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Common Peace Corps Acronyms

PC = Peace Corps (sounds like "peese kor")
PCT = Peace Corps Trainee
PCV = Peace Corps Volunteer
PST = Pre-Service Training
ET = Early Termination
COS = Close of Service
NGO = Non-Governmental Organization
HH = Healthy Homes, the PC program I am in.
YD = Youth Development, the other program in my training group.

Mail & Care Packages

I am very near to my COS date and no longer living in my site. Please do not send any more mail for me to Guatemala. Thanks to all of you who did send me mail and care packages during my 2-year service. It was all greatly appreciated!!!

Disclaimer

Anything that is written or views expressed on this blog are mine personally and do not represent the Peace Corps or the United States government.
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